A Week in Portugal

Surprises: the water off the southern coast of Portugal is cold. Really cold. North Atlantic drift cold, if the maps of ocean currents can be correctly interpreted. But this unassuming corner of the Atlantic sitting outside the Strait of Gibraltar (and therefore removed from the storied Mediterranean) looks like the warm bath tub of the Caribbean. And the steep, crenelated cliffs along the beaches like something out of a fantasy movie.

I first considered Portugal as a destination after reading Frances Mayes’ A Year in the World several years ago. She wrote about the spring she and her husband spent in Lisbon, the Alentejo region, and some of the northern towns. She raved about it. Then a friend told me she’d been there, and another friend visited as well. On a where-to-travel-next mission a couple of years ago, I tentatively looked into the Algarve—the southern coastal area of Portugal—then decided on Maui instead.

But after a run of obligatory trips to visit family and friends, my boyfriend and I decided that this July we would do a European getaway, just the two of us. The last country we’d visited in Europe was Croatia and we weren’t sure how or if Portugal could top it, but what the heck: we would go.

If only the travel gods hadn’t expressed such rampant displeasure with the earthly beings trying to cross oceans, our trip might have got off the ground as planned. Instead, a “broken bracket” on the plane delayed our flight out of Denver for an hour and a half, causing us to miss our connecting flight to Lisbon from D.C. Once we made it to D.C., we found we couldn’t fly to Lisbon until the next day (since July is the start of the high season, all the flights were booked). Forty-two weary and pissed-off passengers who had all missed international connections scattered to area hotels for the night, food vouchers in hand, and waited it out. After most of a day hanging around a Marriott, chatting up the restaurant staff, and trying out the gym, we crossed our fingers, headed to the airport, and flew seven hours overnight to Frankfurt, then another two hours the opposite direction to Lisbon the next morning. The delays and continental zig-zagging had effectively lopped off more than a day of our vacation.

In the Lisbon airport, through the random kindness of a stranger, mercy was finally had and we were able to jump the enormous queue at the car rental place, retrieve our Volvo, and get on the highway. Advice: don’t drive on Portuguese highways when sleep-deprived. While the roadways are modern and exceptionally well-maintained, the drivers go at least 20 miles above the posted speed limit. Keeping an eye on Google Maps while trying to stay awake and steer straight while being blown past by what seemed like the whole of the country in a terrible hurry was about all our rattled nerves could take.

When we reached Lagos, a small-ish coastal town and our home base for the next several days, we couldn’t find the hotel. By now, near comatose with exhaustion, unable to communicate with each other or the GPS, we started having flashbacks of Croatia when we were randomly dumped off by a surly and unsympathetic taxi driver who had no actual idea where our hotel was. Fortunately for us in Lagos, it turned out we were literally right there; our hotel—like streets in Portugal—simply had no sign.

We parked, checked in, and from that point on, Portugal opened its arms.

Lagos was and still is a seafarer’s town, founded more than 2,000 years ago and presided over by a statue of a priest and an ancient fort. The town’s history follows the nefarious roots of colonialism by once being a hub for the slave trade. What’s left of history now is an open square surrounded by old architecture, a serene church, narrow cobblestone streets leading every which way, and a section of the original city walls. Modernity brought a boat marina to the water’s edge along with condo buildings, duplexes, beautiful glass houses, and tile-roofed gems to the surrounding hillsides, hinting at foreign investment and ex-pat paradise.

But we avoided staying in the town proper and did what we always did: booked something close to the beach, Porto de Mos beach to be exact. Among the well-traveled, the area around Lagos is considered quintessential Algarve. The beaches that run the perimeter of the land here are segmented by those famous cliffs, studded with mystical, implausible rock formations, and punctured by watery caves. The sand is clean, the sea clear, the sky cloudless, and the sun hot enough to warm the bones of the British, Germans, and northern Europeans escaping their dreary climates. Since we’d already warmed our bones earlier in May (in Mexico), we had no set expectations, except to find lounge chairs in the shade, a place to get a cocktail or two, and a breeze to waft away our jet lag and the worst of the political animus we’d left behind in the U.S. Oh, except that we did expect warmer water. Instead, we learned to hold our breath before dunking ourselves up to the neck. Thirty seconds was about all we could muster. We never could figure out how people were able to float around all day without going numb. But perhaps that was how: they were numb.

More surprises: at Campimar, one of two restaurants on Porto de Mos, the servers hustled non-stop, working 12-hour days with only a half day off per week (and it wasn’t even considered the height of the high season yet). The same servers working the lunch crowd were there at night when we’d venture down for dinner and to watch the World Cup games. They were friendly, good English speakers (since our Portuguese was nil), and blessed with a playful sense of humor. You could joke with them, smile at them, tip them, ask for a recommendation, gesture for more wine, and they navigated each transaction with genuine good-naturedness. We were reminded of Mexico and the country’s legendary hospitality. Here was a proud working class defiant of the way others in the world saw them.

At dinner one evening, we sat next to a retired Swedish couple who had picked up and moved to Portugal several months prior. They were spending their first official summer in Lagos as new Portuguese residents. Why? Because Portugal—if we were understanding them right—allowed them to live on their pensions tax-free for 10 years. From their newly built three-bedroom condo near the beach, they had walked down to enjoy monkfish kebabs and wine. On the walk back to our hotel later that night, we passed a British man on his phone saying to someone, “The weather has been a sensation.” We understood this. A livable town on a livable coast in a friendly and open country with—yes—sensational weather. In her book, Mayes remarks upon how it is possible to stumble upon a new place and decide immediately that she could live there, and how strange it is to live somewhere else all the while never knowing. I told my boyfriend that if the proverbial feces hit the fan, we could live here.

We spent a morning traversing a “cliff walk”—or path—that ran alongside the cliffs of Porto de Mos. Runners and bikers and those out for a casual stroll with dogs in tow met us coming and going, but for the most part the walk was peaceful and quiet. Signs warned us of the unstable earth. Inching to the edge caused our stomachs to drop. Below and far out to the horizon the sea stretched, with odd striations of rock just under the water’s surface. I wondered what caused this geological feature. On another morning, we trekked to Campilo, a beach that can only be reached by an endless descent down wooden stairs. At the bottom, something you can’t effectively describe except with inadequate phrases: every inch of the sand littered with people; a tunnel through the rock; the incongruously frigid water in shades of turquoise, green, indigo; paddlers and kayakers weaving around the rock formations; the constant urge to take pictures; the small corner we found for ourselves against a cliff face; and the people crowding in non-stop—to see, to wade, to sprawl in the sun. “Campilo is my favorite,” the man at the hotel’s reception desk had said, “if you can do the stairs.” The stairs, though, were nothing. It was the masses of people that had to be negotiated.

In town, we tripped over the cobblestones, did our tourist duty and bought souvenirs, and ate dinner at bustling restaurants. Seafood in rice, pork, stews, whole grilled fish, fried potatoes as accompaniment, and always outstanding bread and olives to start. Heavy food for a summer climate; I had been warned that weight gain was a given. I had also learned about vinho verde from my friend Kelley, a “green” wine light in taste and alcohol. Not big drinkers at home, my boyfriend and I found ourselves ordering bottles of it for dinner and had a glass or two with every lunch. We ordered a pitcher of tinto (red) sangria one evening while sitting on the roof of a three-story bar, listening to soft electronic music under the sky at dusk, next to a couple of hippy Germans sharing rolled cigarettes. My boyfriend and I looked at each other. Something about the vibe . . . “Like Burning Man,” we said.

Each night, the breeze blew off the cold water and chilled everything down. In the mornings, the sun rose in a fresh blue sky as we headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and entertained ourselves with the wizardry of the coffee machine, sipping multiple cups of café con leite. Our room at the hotel was apartment-style, with a fully outfitted kitchen and a washer/dryer. On the first day in Lagos we had found a huge grocery store akin to Whole Foods and bought fruit, cheese, crackers, sliced meats, wine, hummus, juice, water. We ate snacks on our private terrace. I did laundry. Not just a livable town, but a livable hotel. The whole area had the laid-back quality of California with sunburned tourists lolling on colorful beach blankets and strolling barefoot into the restaurants, with nothing much to do but respond to the instinct excavated from deep within to stare upon the blue horizon, wondering—as the Portuguese once did—what was beyond.

On our last night in Lagos, we went back to Campimar and watched Britain vs. Croatia surrounded by a large table of Brits and a young German couple. Everyone was drinking, cheering, joking, cursing. The Germans were smoking. The British wives ordered beer after beer while their husbands switched to espressos. Behind us, the rest of the diners watched with indifference. When Britain began to fail, the German girl got excited. I was with her. I, too, wanted a new team to win. Finally, long past 9 p.m., the Brits decided to nurse their defeat by ordering dinner, their children still happily chattering at the table and running down every so often to play on the beach in the last of the dwindling light.

In the morning, a cliff walk in the other direction during which we stopped cold. The walk took a turn, went downward in some one-person-wide temptation of fate and continued up into the distance, so steep and precipitous that my afraid-of-heights boyfriend couldn’t go further, and I wouldn’t. No sense in falling to our deaths on such a perfectly lovely vacation. We packed up the car and left.

After a white-knuckle drive through Lisbon to the rental car drop-off, negotiating roundabouts three and four lanes deep with—once again—no discernible street signs, followed by an Uber ride with the delightfully conversational Nuno who had lived in Paris and Barcelona but had come home to roost in his boyhood city, we arrived safely at our hotel. I have never been to Paris or Rome; my experience of classic European cities is reduced to London. But even I can see that Lisbon is underappreciated in its beauty and character, from the architecture—rococo mixed with art deco mixed with modern—to the colors—soft pink, mint green, yellow, cherry red—to the palaces behind iron fences and ornate statues in the middle of every roundabout and the cobblestone inlaid with swirling designs, to the hills and parks and shuddering trams straight out of the 1930s, and the graffiti that isn’t an eyesore but somehow adds texture and life. I fell in love instantly.

The young doorman directed us to a restaurant down the alley behind the hotel, where—inexplicably—three theaters stood in various states of function and repair. Apparently, we were in Lisbon’s “Broadway” district. The tucked-away restaurant had a garden, a covered terrace, and good food, and was disturbed only by the complaints of a trio of middle-aged British women wanting vegetables and refusing the inevitable bread. My boyfriend and I were quizzical: “You mean, you can just say no to the bread?” For us, never. We walked off the bread—and everything else—by wandering the Avenida de la Libertad, a main thoroughfare through the city that’s lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels. We stopped at an open-air café, one of several along the shaded center plaza, and had a nightcap. In the morning, we would go home. Not enough time. Just a taste. But a torrent of reasons to come back.

Thankfully there were no more travel delays—just the headwind from the jet stream and the aching joints from sitting too long next to strangers and the extra shenanigans of baggage claim, finding the car, paying for parking, and speeding once again down familiar highways—all to reach what is livable to us, but knowing, now, what else is out there.

Blue

At the end of June, the days near one hundred. The sun makes me sticky and the clouds bring no respite. But still I look out my window and see swaying green trees and blue sky and thank providence all over again that I live in Colorado.

In July the flowers begin to frizzle, their colors and the green of the trees saturate into spilled paint, deepening and muddying and blurring. Smoke from the wildfires makes the sky yellow and brings screaming sunsets at dusk. Somewhere behind them, the blue is hidden.

In August, we simply wait for September.

In September life accelerates again. Kids go back to school. Jobs pick up. Everyone takes a breath during restorative cool nights before we have to worry about the cold days of winter ahead.

In October of this year, the shadow of Mars retrograde reaches its termination and the madness that officially started on June 26—what madness, everything is mad—will show us its end point, its truth and its consequences. That’s what the astrologers say anyway. With every end point, every truth, every consequence we have experienced already, what fresh fork will veer off the road and divert all of us with it, what fork we haven’t already stumbled down, slept upon, lolled beside in stunned inertia.

What new fork brings us to November, to a month we have to care about, a day we have to lay claim to, in a year on its way to ending, a year we’d all sooner forget but cannot.

What fork, those of us who are bone-tired are asking. What fork will give us liberty or give us death. What fork will reveal itself to every traveler, for we are all travelers—the brave among us, the separated, the crying, the angry, the inconsolable, the resigned, the stoic, the ecstatic, the pathological, the pure, the silent. The ones who have not noticed they are even traveling at all, and will not, until some time later when they wake up and discover they are in an unfamiliar place.

This is the work of Mars, god of war, the astrologers point out. Not to destroy like Ares, but to bring peace. Peace that won’t be apparent for a few more years, for the stars play a long game. No, first there must be madness. Amnesia. Bloodthirst. Trickery. Cost. There must be something in each of us that breaks down. There must be reckoning.

The work is of the haul, the uphill climber, the ascent into altitude where there is less oxygen but an infinite view. Where the blue is June blue all the time. Where it pieces you back together, holds you in suspension, and opens the flow of memory: “Oh yes. Yes, I remember. It doesn’t repeat. It rhymes. And we can simply end the verse when we decide to.”

Committed Youth

I admit that I like to pile on the youth sometimes. I don’t mean the eternal (and frankly tiresome) old saw about millennials. All the millennials I’ve known are smart, capable, responsible, and altogether lovely go-getters. What I mean is just youth in general. “The young.” Those people in their teens and twenties. Standing there with their shiny ambitions and unfamiliar problems, their chances like apples on a tree ripe for the taking. Those people who are still the centers of their own universes only because they haven’t accumulated enough life experiences yet to show them otherwise.

I just found out the barista at the coffee shop I go to on Wednesday mornings is 27. He has a scattering of tattoos, a mustache instead of a beard; he’s amiable, fast-moving, makes an almond-milk latte with a heart floating on top. I’d thought he was at least in his thirties. But I don’t really know him. I just know that a small part of me envies his youth. It’s hard not to. What’s he done so far? Where’s he been? What does he really know? Doesn’t matter. He’ll find out soon enough, and I suppose that is what I envy: the finding-out-for-the-first-time part. Those moments when something becomes patently obvious, when knowledge cracks through, when understanding crystallizes, when you know you’ll never be the same again.

I would like to be there when this 27-year-old barista has one of those moments.

Just as I wanted to be there when the kids walked out of school today.

At first, they would have felt a growing exhilaration, a defiant sense of their own power. Some of the teachers and administrators no doubt discouraged them—because of their own limitations. When kids challenge authority, it brings up deep-rooted fears in adults about not being big enough or important enough. It makes people face the uncomfortable notion that conformity may feel safe and moral, but it kills vitality and possibility. I’m sure, though, there were others who encouraged the kids. Yes, exercise your First Amendment rights. Don’t worry about what might happen today. Enough of us will support you. Go. This is your time. This is your time to get out there and be heard.

At 10 a.m. they spilled out of classrooms, out of doors, onto the lawns and sidewalks, a milling mass of them, maybe with signs, maybe shouting chants. Once they made it through the doors, the exhilaration strengthened. Yes! We’re outside. We’ve made it thus far.

Not everyone took it seriously, I’m sure. Some participated just to get out of school. They were the ones shoving each other and laughing, shiftless stances and hands in pockets giving them away. They didn’t really know, didn’t really care (deep down inside they wanted to know, they wanted to care, they felt somehow alien out there, but they weren’t mature enough yet, not courageous enough yet, their journeys hadn’t brought them to an understanding of the broader world and their place in it yet, and so they shuffled along, just happy to skip biology for seventeen minutes).

For everyone else, the next step would have been to commit. Really commit. They stood outside, they chanted. They marched. Cars driving past honked their horns, drivers and passengers threw up peace signs, rolled down windows and waved. The kids waved back and cheered, energized by the effect they were having. A few detractors frowned, yelled their displeasure. In some places, the news reporters inserted themselves into the thick of it, or hovered around the edges with microphones and cameras, speaking fast, scanning the crowd, getting jostled along. The shufflers tried to get into the shot. They crowded in behind the reporters and grinned; they told their friends to watch for them on the news that night. Others, the ones with the messages, the ones with the fire in their guts, got pulled aside by the reporters. They were interviewed, slightly breathless but articulate, despite the nervous thrill rising up in their throats. Those are the ones we’ll watch later tonight and admire—openly or otherwise.

All had their phones out, taking pictures, videos, posting immediately and often to social media. Like lightning, a capturing everywhere of this moment. A capturing of youth. Fresh, brazen, defiant. Committed.

Committed youth.

Something has crystallized. Something is new, different, everyone is saying. Was it new and different when college students protested the Vietnam War? Maybe. Was it new and different when black students walked into white schools, ending segregation, staking a claim to the inherent rights of being human? Depends on your grasp of history. Was it new and different that for many years students didn’t do anything at all? No.

We in white, middle-class America were conditioned by parents, teachers, society to focus only on getting a good job with benefits, saving money to buy a house, squirreling away for retirement some day. We were conditioned to believe that “choice” existed in consumerism only—where it belonged. Here, choose among patio furniture and car insurance plans. But don’t worry about the slow strangulation of corporate government on our two-party system. Don’t worry about social ills; they don’t really concern you. Vote if you want to, portray the image of civic duty, but that’s not where you really need to pay attention. In fact, don’t. Those who are called to politics will figure it out for us; ultimately, they’ll take care of everything. Yes, it’s a long and storied tradition to complain about this country and our politicians, but it’s unnecessary for citizens to do anything about it. Just worry about yourself and the family you’ll someday have. Be practical. Be reasonable. Be indifferent. Don’t ask questions. Stifle your curiosity. Go watch football. And for heaven’s sake, if you start to figure it out, don’t tell anyone.

What’s new and different this time? I’m not asking the question to be cynical. I’m asking to be scientific. I need evidence. I need a randomized study conducted over a period of years. Even so, I accept that it won’t show everything. A young person committing to something is not always empirically observable. The new neuropathways cannot be seen on the outside. Whether or not an 18-year-old votes this year or in the next presidential election isn’t the only measurement of change. Whether or not gun reform happens as a result of a collective movement of suddenly awakened students isn’t the only measurement either. These are big measurements, yes—important ones, of course. They may indicate that a real difference is being made. Kids across the country are counting on it, anyway. And they should. Hope and idealism are the roots of change. Without it, you drift with the wind.

But there must be more that we don’t know.

The final step would have been after the seventeen minutes were up, when the enthusiasm melted into acceptance that the kids still had to go to class today, that those teachers who had been tolerant of their First Amendment rights nevertheless expected them to be back in their seats. Shit, the kids probably thought. Even the shufflers felt it. Enthusiasm caught is hard to come down from. What now?

Here’s what: The day will progress. There will be stories tonight, texts, questions, more social media posts. Tomorrow the kids will still be talking about it (and some of the administrators). There’s another march coming up in a couple of weeks. Planning ahead is not necessary. These days, you don’t schedule. Things materialize. And you are either swept up and absorbed into the nucleus or spun out like an electron. Congress will do nothing; the kids will do more. They’ll chip away at each other’s resolve until a decision is made.

But as I watch this unfold, strangely I find I have nothing to criticize. Either enough kids are committed, or there aren’t. Lord knows I wasn’t committed to too much for a very long time—how can I judge anything that happens after today?

I don’t need to.

The 27-year-old barista lives in a different world than I do. My teenage nieces do as well, and my college-sophomore nephew. There is nothing for me to measure if we are not living in the same world. This is the key. I can’t judge this movement, these kids, through the same lens that I judged myself or anyone else my age or in my generation, or in the generations before me.

Yes, we have been around longer. We are the ones who are wearier and warier and hardened and cynical and rigid—and also desperately, despairingly naïve. We realize we know less than we thought we did. Maybe we never knew anything at all. We participated less in society. We had less compassion, for ourselves and others. We kowtowed too much to a system we weren’t sure we believed in. We let activism be a hobby for someone else to have. We didn’t make anything happen when we needed to.

But we’re trying to now. We’re late to the game, but god damn it, we’re showing up, signing up, organizing, listening, calling, marching, allying, running for office, wearing t-shirts, waving flags, giving speeches, saying prayers. We are fired up now because we can’t afford not to be. And we have the checkbooks or the accrued time off or sometimes, with a little luck, the support systems to back up our efforts. That’s why we joined the resistance. It’s about time, many of us say to each other. It’s about time we did something real.

But on days like today, we learn that we are not enough. These youth—the youth of today—are more than us: more is riding on them, more will be asked of them, more is important for them to learn, more urgency is needed for them to save what may already be dying, more of their ingenuity and fortitude is needed to resuscitate and re-imagine a hamstrung democracy.

This makes us sober. A hush falls.

The crack of knowledge is painful, no matter what age you are.

There is a time when every generation admits that the next generation must somehow win the battle. We have to clear the field; they have to pick up the armor. We have to trust; they have to engage. We have to gracefully step aside; they have to aggressively step in. We know we are at a tipping point; they don’t know enough to be paralyzed with fear.

No matter what happens, no matter what we achieve or don’t, none of us will ever be the same again. And it is then we begin to see that finding out for the first time never stops and youth is just a relative term.

Catheters for Editors

We used to joke about catheters.

Hook us up so we could sit for our eight-hour shifts without getting up, because getting up was dangerous, because all hell could break loose, and did—often. Because in the middle of quarterly earnings, when the shit was coming fast, when the deadlines were way too tight, when everyone’s faces were strained and grim, the catheter could be the tiny merciful difference between outright peeing ourselves and daring to burn two minutes in the bathroom.

Wishing for catheters was just one of the weirdnesses about being an editor at what was then one of the world’s largest newswire services. Back then, we split the market with our main competitor. At any moment, we or the other company could gain a half percentage lead, and then the sales people would pounce with a bombastic furor while the rest of us rolled our eyes, because sales people are the same no matter where you go.

Only in this world did anyone understand that “xmit” meant “send.” As in, “Send it over the wire.” It also stood in as a handy euphemism for the male orgasm. Only in this world did we read each press release aloud to each other before xmitting (although, I don’t think reading aloud has ever induced an orgasm, but I could be wrong about that). We read them aloud so we could catch anything with our voices that our eyes had somehow missed—misplaced commas, duplicate words, wrong phone numbers.

When I was hired and made it through the three months of side-by-side hand-holding that amounted to my training, I was already figuring out that my job was not only weird, but rare. We were English and Journalism majors, occasionally the more vague and dubious holders of an International Relations degree, working not for The New York Times or the Washington Post or the local business journal, but working in corporate America for corporate America, upon which the stock exchanges and the SEC and the C suites of most large organizations around the world relied to deliver—either by law or because of vanity—corporate America’s most “important” information, and thereby prop up the coffers of America’s most sanctified figures.

Funny thing was, most of us editors were liberals. We didn’t even care about corporate America.

What we shared, instead, was a bizarre and unhealthy love of good grammar. We used the Oxford comma with relish. We knew AP Style inside and out, knew by heart every standalone city and state abbreviation. We could read through tables upon tables of financial information without falling asleep, absorbing every number, dollar sign, and amortized amount across four, eight, twelve columns. We found mistakes in the headlines, in lead sentences and boilerplates, and exclaimed again and again, “Doesn’t anyone even read these things before they give them to us?”

Finding “pubic” when it should have said “public” was a big deal. You could get a lot of kudos for that, by the client and your boss. In fact, your boss could win clients away from the competition over a save like that, increasing yearly profits by double-digit percentage points (in theory). But you? (Meaning me.) The one who caught it? (Me.) Never a raise. Nothing monetary. No share of the wealth. Just kudos, with a back slap and a smile.

“Coding” for us was not HTML, but scanning through a mile-long list of five-letter references that each meant something different. City, state, country, region, Europe, Asia, Africa. Dog lovers, cat lovers, energy, pharmaceuticals, technology, television, sports. Media advisory. Embargo. Hold for approval. Correction.

Correction. Holy hell. Never did you want to find yourself having to do a correction. And never, ever did you want to be doing a correction of a correction, which happened in our office once, reaching legendary status—and not in a good way.

Yes, the catheters could’ve come in handy. Dribbling gallons of digested morning coffee into plastic bags so we could—in addition to editing and coding and calculating time zone differences faster than you can add one plus one—give our fullest, most emptied-bladder attention to client quirks. Such a whimsical term for the mightiest of rat traps. Almost every client had one, some as long and convoluted as a patient’s post-op instructions:

Never change any punctuation. (What?! Even if it’s flat-out wrong??). They prefer not to mention their company name in the headline. (Company name in the headline was our sacred company policy, something you dared not overlook, something for which you had to pull out the boxing gloves and prepare for a fight…except, apparently, in this case). Always include Education and Entertainment trades. (That’s odd: this company is oil and gas). Call Susanna before Noon PT with wire times Mon-Thurs, and Ed with wire times after Noon PT. But if it’s after 5 pm PT, then call Jackie or Ellen and leave a message. Call only Paul on Fridays and over the weekend; call his cell phone first and leave a message, then call his home number. During earnings, all releases are Hold for Approval, even if they say release ASAP. Call Paul to confirm when the release is prepped and Susanna will call back with approval.

And that was just the first paragraph.

But not being able to get up for long stretches of time, being wholly submerged in competing priorities and watching the releases that still needed handling stack up on the screen of your newsroom monitor, knowing that it was only going to get busier as the day wore on—no, that was not even the worst of it.

The worst of it was the OCD. During my seven years as an editor, I could not leave my home without touching all four burners on the stove, checking the knobs to make sure they were all pointing to “Off,” and then touching all four burners again. Sometimes I could do this ritual once. Most of the time I had to do it three or four times before I could leave. At my most entrenched, I was doing the stove burner thing five or six times before I could leave…and regularly dreaming about my job…and plowing through press releases during the day without ever making a mistake, without ever not catching someone else’s mistake.

No one understands this kind of record now. Mistakes are funny, cherished, forgiven by default these days, if noticed at all. Back then, mistakes—whether you actually made them yourself or got caught up in someone else’s—were the equivalent of pressing, without permission, the red button at the White House and having every single leader of the free world burst into your office in apoplexy (although, even that kind of calamity seems to be met with casual shrugs these days).

My OCD on the job was sometimes so debilitating I turned to my supervisor in tears, unable to xmit, as I checked and checked and checked everything again and again and again, terrified that I had missed something, absolutely unable to trust my own eyes, certain of my immediate firing.

We were bleary-eyed, harried, big drinkers after work. We sang karaoke together, ate lunch at the Indian buffet, panicked in unison when something went wrong. We dated each other, broke up with each other, tormented each other. We were a strange and dysfunctional clique, thrown together at the mercy of greater forces and a consistent paycheck.

I briefly worked at headquarters in San Francisco, one of the busiest offices in the company. But it was in Denver where I spent most of my tenure, and schizophrenic in another way: just as crazy during quarterly earnings but absolute crickets when it wasn’t.

That was another weirdness: we could do whatever we wanted (within reason) during down time. I wrote a whole novel. One guy studied for and got his real estate license. Less ambitious activities involved reading the newspaper or a book, doing crossword puzzles, playing “Trivial Pursuit,” running the office football pool, calling into radio shows with answers to the noon quiz, helping the marketing team stuff envelopes, taking a nap. Not acceptable: watching porn.

Down time, however, could turn quickly and without warning into up time—into strap-yourself-in, hold-onto-your-hat, insert-catheter up time. Into up time ruled by instructions.

Everywhere we turned there was a list of lengthy instructions, taped to the alarm clock, taped to wire baskets, taped to bulletin boards, taped to our computers, taped to the server when it needed backing up. Instructions about holidays, vacations, time changes, filing, monitoring clips, transferring our office’s newsroom when we closed at night to the office handling our clients during the graveyard shift, in Cleveland, Seattle, Phoenix, elsewhere. Instructions and rules and procedures were God, and we editors were its lowly subjects, bound to it—to the last letter—by fear and threats.

Instructions and rules and procedures were necessary when money was on the line. Someone else’s money, that is; someone else’s stock.

As a result, there were screaming clients of all varieties: PR agency people, IR agency people, CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, communications departments, admin assistants. Never have I worked on behalf of so many scornful men, so many scathing women, sunny voices going crystal-cold when told something they didn’t want to hear. We were supposed to be nice on the phone, helpful. We were supposed to take their last-minute changes without sounding annoyed. We were supposed to smile and bite our tongues when they called up demanding to know, “Why hasn’t it gone over the wire yet?” and refrain from sneering, “Because you keep calling me with last-minute changes.”

That was in the late 90s and early 2000s. That was when 9/11 happened and the Denver office was shut down for the day because someone thought a Secret Security faction housed in the same building made it a possible target. That was when the tsunami hit in Southeast Asia over Christmas and every release we handled was about donating profits and services to those who were affected, each company clamoring to be the most charitable. That was when “corporate social responsibility” became a thing. That was when people still faxed. That was when I thought having a job that paid me benefits and gave me a decent amount of vacation days was the best I could wish for, that there was surely not much else out there for me, an idealistic Journalism major who had nevertheless not gone after a career at The New York Times. That was when writing—my own writing—was still something of a pipe dream.

When I stopped being an editor, my OCD went away. I realized I had other skills, other aptitudes. I realized a small company had just as many problems as a large one—just different problems. I relaxed a bit. I made new friends, indulged in new flirtations, skirted new break-ups.

I still never made any mistakes.

Well, OK, maybe I made a few. Somewhere. But I don’t think about them.

I get up now. I walk around. I see the world outside my window.

I still remember all the standalone cities, but I don’t touch the burners on my stove anymore.

I no longer think in great detail about the necessity of catheters.

The Slant of the Sun

I remember the slant of the sun on the wall.

I remember the honeycomb, just so, on the pancakes you made. The rest of the day, a blur.

Until that night…when I lay on the couch with your hand on my leg and let the tumult of many months well out of me and soak into your pillow. You didn’t say a word. And I did not know I needed that until you gave it.

I met you, when the strange blue jellyfish washed ashore and died on the beach—every June they did, up and down the Pacific coast. You saw me first, standing by the side of the road, the ocean to my right, a mountain to my left, the breeze whipping my bad haircut, and my clothes impractical for nature and the chill. You drove past, you told me later. I couldn’t understand how I’d attracted you in such a flash. But a fine breeze will stir up mystery in anyone.

As wedding guests gathered, we ran the trail the next day—you saw me wheezing, bent over, unable to. It was the poor sleep I’d gotten, the lower altitude. It was you, I wanted to say, watching, judging. When we came through that grass tunnel to the deserted beach, I was free. Put my arms up, my face to the light. I was still young back then; you could see it on me, the years ahead. I could feel you looking at me. I could tell you were plotting the next several hours.

The wedding, the reception, the walk up the hill in the dark in my high-heeled sandals. The lighthouse was a piercing carousel above us. Your hand on my back. Your arm helping me down. At the party later, your attention made me squeamish. It was the DJ I wanted. He spun the records, let me try out his headphones. I tried to talk to him, but it was too loud, and he was busy. My bad haircut is turning him off, I thought. There was a movie star there, married to the brother of the bride. Twenty-four hours before, I had stared at this brother as he walked through the door, kicked in the gut by his beauty. Now I stared at her, the movie star. She had bad hair, too; on her, it was charming. Everywhere, people were lovelier, better, more sophisticated than me.

But had they seen the jellyfish, I wondered. Had they touched reasonless death.

The night reached a climax. There were practicalities to consider. I sized you up. Shorter, balding, strange, you were. An architect. A snob wearing a suit from the seventies, with a cocktail I didn’t know. A marathon runner. A question mark.

You took me back to the place where you were staying, and you kissed me, and kept kissing me, and we strangled and bruised each other on the couch until morning when I finally got up, battered, high. A fork in me. All the differences between us. Would you scale them, I wondered. Did you even have to, with the life you lived and the friends you had and the places you went for fun.

You had asked me something: had I ever been engaged?

No, I laughed. One way, I noted. One tiny way I was more evolved.

It was those differences that incited me to change. To get another degree. To shore up my goals. Bolster my confidence. Spit-shine my mantle of woman desired, woman admired. To change meant getting rid of him first, the old him back at home, the him that had haunted me for years, the him that had never, ever worked out.

School beckoned. Another Pacific city.

Before I made my escape to the edge of the continent, I arrived on your doorstep. A last hurrah, they called it. We had a good night, then a bad one. You were not really available, it turned out. There was someone else. And your couch was as fine a place as any to tell me. I don’t want you, I didn’t say. What I needed was the friction of a human body without walls.

Because…I hadn’t let go of the old him back home, truth was. He’d let go of me. And I hadn’t bargained on your rejection. Didn’t know your secret moral dilemma.

The sun on the wall was orange in the low evening light. I closed my eyes. The music was Brazilian, a woman singing.

I cried. You listened, waited, sat with me.

We went to bed. You came in close, arm over my ribs. There was a reverence. Human pain is familiar, baked into our bones.

Weary gratitude lulled me to sleep.

In the morning, my flight home.

The sun on the wall was bright again, in a blue sky, above a green meadow. Someone painted that for me, you said.

Squaring off what would never be anything other than a time, a person, an experience shared. No bleeding edge to the soul, no dirty canvas revealing the rest of the story. Just the sun and the sky and the meadow in a square. And you standing there.
And me leaving. Forever, maybe…

Reditus

It’s been a really long time since I talked about writing.

I started this blog years ago when I was determined to be a writer (re: do more than just fill notebooks at home, in private, with no one to read what was in them). I thought I’d write confidently and prolifically about the craft and business of writing, as I was growing and learning. But since then I have drifted far from that center to explore whatever was interesting to me. Turns out I didn’t want to be bound by one idea of what I should be sharing. Turns out I’m not so good at having a unified message.

I’m coming back to writing today because I’ve lately been thinking about how much it’s changed for me. Whatever fount of creativity I’ve been clinging to over the last few years has dried up and left in its place a well from which I must plumb. What at times was lustfully overflowing is timid now, underground, waiting to be coaxed to the surface. What may have been exuberant in its offering is now withdrawn. Everything in life is cyclical—even this. And I find myself in a new cycle of thinking more and creating less. Air-dried and thirsty in the desert. Remembering the feeling of being soaked.

Practical reasons, I can guess, for this new state. If I want to be analytical, I can say that much of my time not spent on my paid work is spent dealing with the current political situation and my newfound activism. A worthy reason, some would say. I also wrapped up final—final final—revisions on my second novel earlier this year—a novel over a decade in the making—so maybe my brain and my soul just need a damn minute. And because I make a living as a freelance writer and have to come up with words on demand for other people in other industries about which I usually know little but must learn a lot immediately, much of my energy reserves go toward those left-brain exercises…not to mention the near-constant search for new work and worry about not having enough. Worry is a creativity killer, I’ve found.

But every writer has these problems. None of mine are unique.

That is what we tell ourselves, too, to sound lofty. To show that we understand the tribe. “I get it,” we writers say to each other and close our eyes in sympathy. Notice my sudden use of the word “we” instead of just owning it. A layer removed. If I say “I,” I might cry.

I’m coming back to writing today to peer down the silent well. What’s down there? What have I been overlooking? What roots cling with naked tenacity to the stone sides? What thin layer of muck at the bottom hides an ecosystem of blind and primitive creatures feeding off soil and water? What hides in the cracks, unbidden? I don’t know yet. I can’t see. My eyes need time to adjust.

I’m coming back to writing because it used to be that it could help me process my emotions, learn about myself, learn about others. But I am weary of others, weary of myself. And my emotions are on lockdown until I jab their soft underbellies with a choir singing Om So Hum, and only then do they release themselves and course in rivulets down my cheeks.

My grandmother died. I want to write about her. I cannot find the words.

And so I cry.

And yet everything is bound up. I don’t know from one month to the next what will make itself known. Where are my old notebooks with my old stories and essays? Where are those old swords piercing the veins of truth? But when I read them, I don’t recognize the words anymore. Who was I back then? What did I dream about? Where did I go?

I’m coming back to writing. Because I have to.

I’m coming back because Richard Bach says in Illusions, “I will not let you go until you set me, in words, on paper.” There is something…something…that has not let me go yet. Has chained itself to my ankle. Has let me drag it down the street and into my apartment and on vacation and into work meetings and into lazy-Sunday breakfasts where I can continue to ignore it, and ignore it, and ignore it if I want to.

But if I say it here—I’m coming back to writing—maybe the chain will break. Not to release the craft. Not the business. Not the façade of enterprise and ambition.

The roots, God damn it.

Maybe I will see the roots, the primitive mud creatures, the pearl in the furthest crack.

There.

Luminescent with meaning, round like the earth, cradled in the universe. Here for me to pluck and bring into the light.

The Drive

How does he know that I will be careful with this? Because I might not. I don’t know. I don’t know anything.

******

Devin drives with the windows down and a heavy metal band shrieking on the stereo. I’m next to him, staring ahead at the two-lane road, wondering how I got here. This is how, I think: summer baseball, a warm evening, the last of the afternoon thunderheads moving away into the distance, and that seam of gold that appears in the sky after the storm. I was just sitting there on the bleachers, watching the game, when Devin approached and smiled, and his dimples smiled, too, and his eyes were shy.

“Want to go for a drive?”

I looked at him.

“I have to drop something off for my dad.”

I remembered the rumor—was it a rumor?—that his dad was sick with cancer. I didn’t remember how or where I heard it. All I knew was that Devin and his siblings lived with their mom in town, and his dad lived somewhere else.

I said, “OK.”

Simple as that, it seemed.

The other thing I’m thinking, there in his pickup, is that it should have been Mitch all those months ago when April and I sneaked out and crept the two blocks to Devin’s house because his mom worked at night. The four of us, Mitch and Devin and April and I, sat in Devin’s basement and played strip poker; nothing else to do, underage in the middle of the night. We were nervous, giggling, as we unhooked our bras under our shirts and pulled them free. Devin and Mitch stripped down to their underwear. That’s as far as any of us would take it.

But then we were making out with each other. April was across the room with Mitch, and I was under Devin on the couch. I knew Mitch was furious. I could feel it, feel his attention on me even as he fumbled around with my friend. Devin was quiet, deliberate, with the broad shoulders and dead weight of a man. We kissed for hours, and between the kissing and the weight of him on my body, I was breathless all night. The next day we pretended it never happened.

******

He drives us away from the game, out of town, past green corn fields and twisted trees and irrigation ditches, the smell of manure and rain-soaked alfalfa blowing by—away from civilization, perhaps miles and miles away, I consider, into the dark blue on the eastern horizon. A paper bag by his feet ripples in the wind from the open windows. I catch a glimpse of the edge of my face in the side-view mirror, my lips held tightly together.

We don’t talk on the drive, but he has a look of serenity on his face. He always looks serene.

He was serene that night, too, when he lowered himself onto me, pushed his tongue into my mouth. What am I doing here?, I’d kept asking myself. I had never been interested in Devin before. He was just a guy I knew. He had always been just a guy I knew, with a high-pitched giggle and ears that stuck out a bit. Mitch was the one. Mitch was the first boy to slip his hand into my jeans as I suffocated against him on a late night, who told me he was in love with me during hours-long phone conversations which tied up the line and pissed off our families. Mitch was a bragger and a fighter. He walked with a lope and a head bob, hands balled into fists, always on the lookout for a rumble. Mitch was also a game. I could roll around with him, his panting in my ear, my bra undone, and then get up and leave him and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. I could string him along and laugh about the other girls he tried to date and tell him ridiculous things like, “I know you better than you know yourself,” because it sounded sexy and enigmatic. And maybe it was to him. He always came back for more.

I wanted to be crushed into that couch by Devin, because I didn’t have to think about what he would say or do afterwards, and what I would say or do in return. I wanted a moment when I did not have to calculate. And I wanted Mitch to see me having that moment.

******

The road is almost dry and the air rushing through the windows whips my hair across my eyes.

Just then, the metal band achieves a moment of grace and a song comes on—a ballad—that rings out so powerful, so soaring with longing, that it fills my entire being and raises the hair on my arms. I look over at Devin. I want to tell him to pull over, to stop. I want to move toward him across the seat and take his face and kiss him. I want his tongue in my mouth, his hands on my body. I want to straddle him. I want him to grip my legs. I want him to do more to me than we did on the couch. I wonder if this is how love happens. I wonder if I am a brave person.

But I stay where I am and yank my hair to the side. I draw my knee up and hug it to me.

After awhile we turn into a dirt driveway, drive down it, and park in a cluttered yard next to a ramshackle house. Everything—the house, an assortment of sagging sheds—is a scratched kind of gray. The leaves on the trees are shriveled and the yard is full of weeds. A yellow dog of uncertain breed wags its tail when we get out of the pickup and follows us to a screen door. Inside, everything is dingy and the rooms are barely furnished. It smells like mold and old cooking. I follow Devin through the kitchen to a bedroom steeped in tea-colored light. I see skinny knees, an arm; someone is sitting on the edge of a bed holding a cigarette. I shrink into myself and don’t know where to look.

“This is Nina,” Devin says and the skinny, smoking person nods.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a sick parent, or divorced parents, to live in a sad little house all alone, to sit in a bedroom day in and day out with nothing but a cigarette for company. All of a sudden I am stunned, surprised that I am here: there is nothing I can offer.

Devin hands his dad the paper bag and they start a low, murmuring conversation; it feels too private for me to hear. I slip back through the kitchen to the living room and wait in the dimness, holding myself very still, feeling my heart beating. The dog peers at me through the screen door.

I think about Mitch. He drinks juice boxes like a child. The dark hair on his upper lip is rough. He is taller than me, and gangly, with bad posture. His hair is cut into a mullet. He loves motorcycles and dirt bikes and drag racing—things I don’t care about. He is handsome and yet squalid. He makes me squinch with embarrassment, makes me think “white trash.”

I think about the last time I was with him. He came over when my parents were out of town and we made out all night until the sun started coming up and I had to kick him out. I had to shove him toward the door. I had to cross my arms and plant my feet and make my voice angry and threatening so that he would leave. Elsewhere in the house my sister and brother slept. I was worried they would hear me, find out, tell on me. When he finally left, I locked the door behind him and watched out the window until he was gone. Then I went back to my room and lay on the bed and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t because I was so worked up, because Mitch was everything that I did not want, and I didn’t understand anything, why I did what I did with him.

******

After several minutes Devin comes and finds me and asks if I’m ready to go. I dart my eyes around, expecting more. I wonder what was in the paper bag—could’ve been medicine, food, anything. Money, I think with a slow prickle. Then I also think: maybe he didn’t want me to know.

But the fact that he asks me if I’m ready to go—the fact that he wants to know what I prefer, when we are here, in this broken-down place far outside of town, with a person he must care about who may or may not be dying, who may or may not have enough money or food or medicine at any given time, and he’s asking me what I want, as if I might want to stay, put my feet up, hang out for awhile—is something I don’t know what to do with and I am stunned all over again. If nothing else, he is polite, I tell myself. But that’s not right. It implies there is nothing else, and there is—it floods me—so much more.

“Sure,” I say as brightly as I can. I want him to know that I am fine, that this whole thing has been fine. That I have noticed nothing, judged nothing.

I walk with Devin outside to the pickup. The broad stretch of his shoulders is hunched now, his head down. I watch the way he has to leave his dad, and a strangled feeling rises in my throat. I don’t want to kiss him anymore. I want to hug him.

We pull out onto the two-lane road and head back to town.

Now is the time to bring up that night.

But still we pretend.

******

A week after the night at Devin’s house, I ran into Mitch, who told me that he’d been calling April a lot and that they might go on a date. April was my friend, but she was also my main competition, and for a quick moment I was fired up, my mind searching for a nasty thing to say to him. He beat me to it. “You’ve been replaced,” he said, but I just laughed. Temporary, I thought to myself. He’ll be back. I don’t want him back, but he’ll be back all the same.

He called me a few days later.

******

The setting sun is streaming over the road now, spreading a watercolor of orange and purple behind the mountains, and the air is so fresh and light that I want to hold my head out the window and close my eyes like a happy dog. But I’m anxious, too. I just want to get back, back to the baseball game, back to my friends, to the familiar corners of my world. Where parents don’t have cancer. Where the houses are neatly painted in reassuring colors and the grass is clipped and green. Where my throat is not tight with an intimacy I probably don’t deserve. Where Mitch stops calling and Devin is still just a guy I know and we don’t have this moment between us.

This is what will happen: Devin will leave me at the chain link fence by the field. He will drive home to his mom’s house and go inside and maybe eat a little dinner that she’s left out for him. He will play video games with his sisters and stay up late watching Letterman. He will sleep shirtless, one arm thrown over the edge of a rumpled bed. I will walk home to my house and yell “Mom?” when I go inside, and do the dishes because it’s my night, and I won’t be able to sleep at all because that’s when my mind wants to spin the most. Our individual lives will speed up and whir along their fast and separate tracks, unaware once again of the other.

But he doesn’t know that I will hold that drive to his dad’s close and guarded. He doesn’t know this because he just wanted a friend along, and somehow he understood that I was one, and that there would be no need for questions, no need for further comment. The glimmer of this knowledge will blink and go out, blink and go out for years to come, arriving like a torch in my hand I didn’t know I was holding when other friends are raw with need. And I realize that the game with Mitch doesn’t have anything on this experience with Devin, who I will still, from time to time, recall kissing and being crushed underneath on a couch in his basement, the memory of which will slowly fade into just something I did once, back when, before the drive.

******

Devin doesn’t say a word the whole way back. I rest my head against the seat, keep my face turned away from him. He drops me off at the field and I walk home. When I go inside my house, I don’t yell for my mom. Instead, I stand in the kitchen, my hands on the counter, looking into the back yard. I see green through the square glass.

The phone rings.

I let my hands drop.