And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around


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Just can’t shake it

Travel is exhausting. Airports are stressful. Customs officers are rude. New places take energy to navigate, and hot climes wear me down. It’s easy to get burned out.

I hadn’t traveled solo since I studied abroad in Europe seven (God. Seven??) years ago, so I had to reacclimate. Belize was a great choice- the official language is English, the busses are plentiful and easy to use, and the people are friendly and helpful.

Still, after a week of sweaty hostel beds, sunburns, salt water showers, lonely stints, and paying for toilets, water bottle refills, I start to fantasize about my own bed, cooking my own meals, calling up my own friends.

So by the time I arrived in Chicago, I was ready to get home, wash the rank laundry in my bag, buy groceries, organize..

And yet. After a good shower, a good sleep, and good coffee at my cousin’s, I went to catch the El train to the Greyhound station, and as I stood in the gloomy air, staring down the infinity of the rail tracks and the rising buildings, I was ready to go again.

For a few seconds, I said, “Why not?” Chicago has museums to explore, chilly parks with tiny leaf buds on the trees, streets I haven’t walked down yet, bookstores I haven’t plundered yet. Why not? I thought.

But of course I dutifully continued to my Greyhound bus, plotting and scheming future uncomfortable, stressful, addictive journeys all the way home.

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Friendship Break-Ups

About a year and a half ago, my housemate and one of my closest friends abruptly moved out and stopped talking to me. I’d confronted her about something trivial the night before, something that I figured we could be angry about for a while, and then chat it out when we’d had some time and space. But the next morning, she refused to talk about it and moved out, and as much as I tried to repair things, she had no interest in doing so.

It hurt like a romantic relationship breakup. The problem was, nobody ever talks about friendship break-ups. Friendships are often put on the back burner for romantic relationships in our society – how many media portrayals put a higher emphasis on romantic relationships over platonic ones? Friends are often seen as the emotional fall-backs after a romantic relationship ends. Did your boyfriend dump you? Fuck him, it’s time to rally with your friends and emphasize “me time”…until you find someone betterNot much attention is paid to friendships that end in painful ways. We don’t have a universal term for a former friend; “ex-friend” sounds clunky, despite “ex-girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife/partner” being the norm. Popular artists don’t typically write songs about losing friends.

I suppose in a way this makes sense. Most friendships end by a slow separation, a mutual drifting apart. In a lot of ways, it’s a kind death, like the friendship got to grow old and gray, live a full life, and then died in its sleep.

A friendship that ends abruptly feels more like a “missing-presumed-dead” situation. There’s no closure, no satisfying explanation.

So what do you do when a friendship that involved years of hilarious exploits, drunken capers; weekend Netflix binge parties; spontaneous road trips; conversations that had you both laughing until your stomachs ached; tearful confessions and comforting hugs comes to a screeching halt?

You do what you do with any other breakup – you rally with your other friends and you try to sort it out. At first, I was worried that my friends wouldn’t understand why I felt so awful. It’s not as if we were dating, after all! But the more I opened up about it, I discovered that nearly all of my friends had a similar story. For many, there was that one person, that friend they clicked with, then it all fell apart, and it ended abruptly, or with hostility.

I’m glad to know I’m not alone, but I’m still frustrated that there’s so little public commiseration to be had. How do I make a mix of sad break-up songs for a friendship? Which movie do I watch that portrays the aftermath of a broken friendship? I think it’s some combination of this dearth of cultural reference and lack of closure that keeps me thinking about this lost friendship a year and a half later. My many questions -How could I have fixed it? What was going on in my friend’s head when this happened? What was the exact breaking point that made her decide that our years of friendship weren’t worth fighting for? – will never be answered.

So the most I can do, the most any of us can do, is to remember the fun times fondly, cherish the friends that we have, and try to wish that ex-friend (past friend? former friend? one-upon-a-time friend?) well.

 

 


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Tuning In

It happens to all of us. We live on our phones for the day, pocketing them to grab cans off the shelf or put a load of laundry in, then pulling the phone out again, mindlessly opening and closing and re-opening Instagram or Twitter. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m trying to write more often (NaNoWriMo is right around the corner!!), or maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about how to live intentionally, but today I found myself tuning in to life more.

At the grocery store, I paid attention to my grocery clerk’s hands as he rang up my purchases. He had the most fascinating, agile hands, hands I would like to draw. They were long and slender, slightly knobby, and they’d deftly spin a can through the scanner or toss an apple up and roll it into the bag, a subtle dance. And I would have missed it if I had been looking at my phone or spacing off.

I took a walk in Hickory Hill Park after I got home, admiring the leaves. I had thought they were at their peak a few weeks ago, but I was dead wrong. This afternoon they were a raucous, joyful display, oranges and reds against the blue sky- my very favorite sight of fall.

I took out my headphones as I entered the forested area, tuning in to the sound of leaves and insects. In the woods at this time of year, it’s impossible for the forest animals to walk with stealth. Squirrels might as well be elephants for all the rustling and crackling they make as they skip through the leaves and skitter up trees. Deer, however carefully and slowly they tread, make a steady shuffing noise, white tails up and flicking.

I pass a woman on a bench, and a toddler, who is all blue sky eyes and autumn leaf red hair. He is learning that if he waves, then he can make this stranger wave back. He is discovering his power over the creatures around him, and he is all smiles.

I am all smiles as I walk home, too. I have observed things, and I have things to write about. What a thing to remember- that those little moments are always there, if I just tune in and look.


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Float On: 5 Exercises to Get Your Imagination in Gear

Fall is my creative season. The back-to-school mentality is so deeply ingrained that even now, after I’ve been out of school for years, I still get revved up for new projects and creative endeavors. Even so, I often lament how hard it is to do what came so easily when I was a kid, or even a teenager – let my imagination loose and just go with it. I am so distracted with my newsfeeds and emails and texts that I hardly get an uninterrupted moment to just…float.

They say boredom is good for creativity, so I’ve been trying to work on carving out a little time each day to drift off and see what my mind comes up with. Here are some things that I’ve done that have helped me feel like a kid again, bringing back that enthusiasm that reminds me why I want to write, why I want to draw, why I want to make stories. I’m curious about what else helps people “untether” their brain for a bit and float into a narrative or a character or a mood…

  1. Walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood nearby – and leave your phone at home. What catches your eye? What odd thing do you notice? What kind of people live in that little house that you’ve never noticed before? What about in that house with the crazy cow skull hanging on the front porch, surrounded by neon lights? (True story. Love you, Davenport Street. ❤ )
  2. Listen to music without lyrics. I’ve long been a film soundtrack junkie, and sometimes it’s even better if I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t associate the music with any existing narrative or moment. I’m so used to multitasking that it’s refreshing to drop everything (and yes, shoving my phone in a drawer), busting out my old school iPod, and listening to music with no distractions. Ideas may float in or out, or maybe it just sets me into a mood. I’ve noticed that the desire to be creative and make stuff seems to naturally return to me when I play more music and watch less tv. Maybe that’ll be my mantra. More music, less TV.
  3. Rewrite a fairy tale. If you thumb through a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a lot of the stories are pretty sparse, or have weird moments of dark humor (or just darkness in general) that you might have missed as a kid. Take one that intrigues you and run with it. Change the setting, tell it from a new point of view, or fix that ending you hate. It can be a short exercise, or who knows, maybe you can spin it into a novel. Those fairy tale rewrites are all the rage these days.
  4. Open a dictionary. Get a dictionary, open it to a random page, and then try to write a story with as many words from that page as possible. You might set a timer for 15-30 minutes, or you might just go as long as you can.
  5. Study some art. Go to a bookshop or library and dig into some art that intrigues you. A nearby art museum can also be great for a morning or afternoon of inspiration- just make sure to bring your notebook! You can even make a challenge for yourself and do some timed free writing about a specific piece.

I know these are sort of generic- I keep being reminded that I am the most creative when I:

  • Free myself from distraction. (For me, that’s turning off my phone and my internet. Arg, so hard!)
  • Make the time to write down ideas when they come to me. Ideas will always come at the most inconvenient time possible. It’s Creative Law. So, barring any safety concerns, I am trying to get better at taking the five minutes and jotting it down, then sitting down later and sifting through my notes so I can expand the ones with potential.
  • Stop making excuses and put pen to paper. When I was younger and in school, I had so much structure to be creative in. There was always work to put off- characters to draw in the margins of my notes, stories to dream up as I avoided homework. Now that I’m adulting, I come home from work and have the afternoon in front of me to do whatever I please. It takes a lot of discipline to park my butt in the chair and write. I wish I could say I did it habitually every day, but…I’m still working on it.

Good luck on your writing and other creative endeavors. This is the season for dreaming…so float on, friends.


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It Has a Vibe to It

This past weekend, I was in California visiting my brother. He waxed nostalgic about my current home, Iowa City, where he spent a chunk of his twenties. It was a different world a decade ago, when bars and bowling alleys were full of cigarette (and pot) smoke, and the now-upscale, Prohibition style whiskey bar was a seedy dive called One Eyed Jake’s.

“I love Iowa City,” my brother said. “That place has a vibe to it. You really only appreciate that when you move to other places and realize that not everywhere has a vibe.”

He’s right. So many places fall prey to sameness, not only from the prefab houses neatly spiraling into cul-de-sacs or the rows of chain stores, but because the people seem to settle into homogeneous pockets of predictable culture.

At work this week, I griped about the commute to Cedar Rapids, a short but congested drive that adds a stressful hour to my day. “I should just move to Cedar Rapids,” I grumbled. It’s an attractive notion, especially when stuck in bumper to bumper traffic because of a fender bender eight miles ahead. My drive would be shorter, I could actually afford a place of my own (unheard-of in Iowa City, where rent prices have hiked up thanks to corrupt housing companies and wealthy university students), and I would be more keyed in with the community, instead of straddling the line between two different towns.

But this evening, on such a cool, perfect fall night, all dimming blue skies and a nearly full moon and illuminated porches, moving is unthinkable. I walk down my street, past a large brown dog and its owner, who greets me with, “We never get anywhere quickly.”

“So many smells!” I say, more to the dog than to her.

I walk down the brick-paved Linn Street and bump into a friend outside of High Ground. She pulls me in to meet her friend, who read my cartoon in Little Village Mag, the local free alternative publication in town. I say a quick hello, but then I am dashing off to meet my date at Bread Garden, past a man playing on the public piano, who is singing something about how “two pretty girls walked by and didn’t even notice.” If I am one of the pretty girls he is singing about (It sounds like an impromptu lyric), I am too quickly walking to acknowledge that I noticed, already running late. I wish I could stop and smell all the smells, like that brown dog with nowhere to go.

My date and I have dessert and wine on the patio that is somewhere between inside and outside, children shrieking on the playground past us. We look at strange CD cover art in the library. We plan to meet at the farmer’s market next – my favorite way to spend a free Saturday morning in Iowa City.

I walk home in the cool dark. The buildings are taller and cleaner than when my brother walked these streets, but the porches still have worn-out couches and tables littered with cigarette butts and beer cans. I watch employees close shop in Bluebird Cafe, I walk past the bandanna-wearing chef having a cigarette on the bench by Riverside Theatre, I pass porches illuminated in twinkly lights. It is sometimes inconvenient to live somewhere with character, just like my drafty old house, but I need to remember that living in a place with a “vibe” is nothing to take for granted.


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A Tuesday Off With a History Buff: Iowa Backroads to Des Moines

The great thing about working at a museum is that every day is different, and not just your workdays, but sometimes your days off, too. So, with an unexpected Tuesday off, my friend Jerry, who works at another local museum, and I took off for Des Moines from Iowa City.

It’s an easy trip. All you have to do is shoot across I-80 and blammo, pass a few scores of semi trucks and commuters and you’re there. Or you could take the back roads, winding your way down Highway One, onto Black Diamond Road (Where did that name come from? we wondered), and along a slew of hard-to-follow county roads. You know the kind that say F67 or F53 on the map, but the real deal is noted by more unique names.

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Names like..Orval Yoder TPK SW. Hold on. What is TPK supposed to stand for? Trailer Park? Turnpike? Tupac spelled wrong?

Jerry and I got an early start at 7:30, and I actually TOOK PHOTOS (something I am horrible at), which means that this blog will be more photo-heavy than most or any that I write.

Less than an hour in we found this beautiful old church in a little town called Windam. Well, I say town. It’s listed as a town on a map, and maybe a row of houses with a church they can claim is enough to make it so. I can’t imagine growing up somewhere so small, surrounded by nothing but farmland. And yet, the rush of I-80 is only a few miles north. The interstate doesn’t even feel in the same era, let alone the same county.

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Look at all those history on them there stones.

The church has an adjacent cemetery, full of Civil War-era tombstones, all with Irish last names. We walked past rows of McKillins and Kellys, O’Donnells and Ryans. Beyond the tombstones, endless green, the gentle rolling hills of crops still less than a foot tall. It was a great find. Jerry pointed out the G.A.R. stars placed for Civil War soldiers. My history knowledge is lacking, and his encyclopedic. But I pack snacks and bring good tunes to listen to, so we make good road trip buddies.

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The tallest statue in the cemetery by far. This family had it GOIN ON. And I captured a nice lens flare. 

Except when I got us really lost not soon after this stop.

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Your intrepid navigator with the (mostly) trusty Cherokee Jeep and a REAL ACTUAL MAP. (No cell phone reception out in these here parts)

We ended up doubling back on our route, getting closer to Kalona as I cursed my rusty map skills. The delay was worth it, though, as we got to another small town, Wellman, and discovered the AWESOME CORNER. It’s at the corner of Awesome Corner and Awesome Corner, don’t you see. So I guess that makes it the Awesome Corner Corner. …Don’t think about it too hard.

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Fact: Hanging underneath the Awesome Corner sign increases your awesomeness exponentially.

We were back on track before long, admiring the rolling countryside and listening to an old Violent Femmes tape. We stopped at an historic site in Lynnville, Wagaman Mill, a scenic little spot for a picnic.

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The actual mill was closed, by a guy across the way was enjoy it as a fishing spot, and we probably ruined his hour with our WASP-y picnic across the way.

At this point, we were nearing Des Moines, but we had one more stop along the way before we got to the capitol city: A trip to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, where the bison roam! 62 bison, to be exact. The refuge was HUGE, acres of untouched prairie, and neither Jerry nor I even knew it existed before Jerry spotted it on his Iowa map. We had good fun driving along the road tour trail, and at each crest of the hill I belted out the Jurassic Park theme, waiting to spot a herd of bison, or even just one little guy…

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Oooo, sounds exciting. Cue the John Williams score!!

…But no matter how loudly I sang (or maybe because of the loud singing and the rickety old Jeep), no bison revealed themselves to us. Stay hidden, you elusive, endangered beasts of the prairie.

Jerry did get to bond with one bison at the (very modern and impressive) visitor center, though.

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Jerry, becoming one with (stuffed) nature

At this point, it was nearing 1:00 and we were ready for the big city. Des Moines truly felt like a metropolis after all those small towns and opens fields, and we flipped a 180 by visiting Terrace Hill, an historic mansion and residence of the Iowa Governor, Terry Branstad and family. Jerry also works in an historic house (the impressive Brucemore Estate), so he wanted “to compare the Victorian style to the Second Empire style.” I shrugged violently at him. Second Empire, when was that? Ah, okay, right, the second French Empire, Napoleon III, all that stuff. …I swear I know things, just not all the History Things.

Terrace Hill was appropriately fancy, inside and out.

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Ooooo.

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Ahhhhh. (My Huawei didn’t take this picture, obviously- no interior photos allowed on the tour, so I did an image search.)

But, you ask, how do they give tours of an actual residence? And why does the governor of Iowa live somewhere so fancy? Doesn’t he fear a peasant’s revolt the likes of which unseen since the French Revolution??

Well, no. Terry and his family live in a modern but not crazy-royal apartment on the third floor, the former servants’ quarters. I was kind of bummed by this, because seeing the servants’ quarters is always my favorite parts of house tours like these, maybe because it’s the only part of the house I can imagine actually living in. The tour was mostly about architecture and the history of the artifacts in the house, and Jerry was twitching and cringing as the tour guide touched every object on the tour. I didn’t notice, and after the tour, Jerry and I debated if this had been a bad practice or not; at Brucemore, nearly every artifact has a rich history and connection to one of the families who lived there. The furniture in Terrace Hill, though, is still used for events sometimes and there’s only one piece of furniture original to the first family who lived there. Still, I wound up working at a museum through good timing and stars aligning, so my knowledge of artifact handling procedure is woefully lacking.

We left Terrace Hill (no Brandstad sightings- Our governor is as elusive as the bison) and headed to East Village, Jerry grumbling about how to the tour guide handled the artifacts without even any GLOVES.

I dragged Jerry to the tea store, Gong Fu, and got my chance to shine in the nerdy sun for a while, going foamy at the mouth over Yixing clay teapots and aged Puerh tea. Jerry nodded politely and read the newspaper, muttering about the Templeton Rye controversy (up until recently, the label said it was a “Prohibition-Era Recipe” and that it was distilled in Templeton, Iowa, when it’s actually switched to a distillery in Indiana, where it is made in considerably larger batches. Scandal! It is a shame, though. It was highly-lauded Iowa whiskey, and now it’s not even Iowan. What a waste.

Speaking of Iowa, what trip to our fair capitol would be complete without a trip to the State Capitol building? Then again, the last time I was in the Capitol, I had a disposable camera in hand. I probably still have my horribly underdeveloped picture inside the library, with its spiral staircases and symmetrical levels that reminded 5th Grade Me of the library in Beauty and the Beast. The only problem with it, I had decided, was that all the books were law books. Now THAT is a terrible waste.

Ok, PHOTO DUMP!!

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Oh, so fancy! The only fact I remember from my 5th grade tour of the capitol is that if you took all the gold leaf from the dome and wadded it up, it would be about the size of a baseball.

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I didn’t lie on the floor to take this, but I bet if I worked here, and I had a dime for every time some tourist did lie down with a big old camera… well, I would have several dimes, I’m POSITIVE.

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The library, just as fairy tale-esque as I remembered! Except for all those damn law books, of course. We’ll pretend they’re forgotten fables and lore.

IMG_20160607_160558Ooooo, ahhhh. It truly is some astonishing architecture. Vertigo-inducing, even, if you’re me. But I have a soft spot for the less-impressive corridor with some cabinets that don’t get quite as much attention and care… Behold!

IMG_20160607_161303 Yep. Someone, somewhere, made China doll replicas of each Iowa First lady in their inaugural ballgowns! The thing is, they all have the exact same face, only with different hairstyles and gowns. *shiver* A truly wonderful collection for any creepy doll afficionado.

Right across from this “Case of Doll Clone Horrors” is the “Case of Lame Presents That the Governor Clearly Didn’t Want To Keep But Has To.”

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“Oh, Wow! A book about a volcano I can’t pronounce! That’s so sweet.”

“A picture of me with some other people? How did you know??”

“Wooden shoes? What a unique gift from the Netherlands!” (Plot twist: They were from Pella. At least I hope so.)

But best of all was this gift:

IMG_20160607_161521I give you: Things Made of Corn! A present fit for a state governor! (But c’mon, no Everclear?)

We left the Capitol as it neared to five, and at this point I was DROPPING. We’d been all over the map and I was ready for some respite. But we still had one final stop, one piece of unclosed business.

Jerry had to check and see if he still held the high score on Ms. Pacman at Up/Down, the arcade downtown. We waited until it opened, then went down the staircase and into the basement that was a 90’s arcade dream…with local beer. Jerry raced with baited breath to the locked display case with the high scorers displayed on Polaroids. Everyone was listed with their initials, except for Sean Lennon, who has a score of over 1,000,000 (yes, One Million) points on a game I hadn’t heard of. Yes, John Lennon’s son is on the wall of the Up/Down Arcade in Des Moines. And you said famous peoples’ kids never did anything noteworthy.

“NOO!” Jerry wailed.

Poor Jerry. A local young woman had beaten him substantially, with over 300,000 points. He resolutely pulled out his game tokens that he’d trucked all this way and I ordered us a couple of pilsners.

Did I mention that I’m really terrible at arcade games? I played a few rounds of regular Pacman and a few on Tetris, cheering Jerry on as he collected slews of fruit (and a pretzel?) and dots upon dots. He finally submitted defeat, though, and he asked for his old Polaroids back, relics from his glory days.

“If I was here for hours, I could beat it, but I have to step away.” A wise choice. Fame is fleeting, especially if you only ever get to Des Moines once a year to compete against some local woman who can saunter in any time and beat the score with one quarter.

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Gone but not forgotten: These high scores will be remembered. 

So it was with bittersweet solemnity and hungry stomachs that we left Des Moines for Grinnell, where we had some delicious food at the Prairie Canary and stopped to look at the exterior of a beautiful historic bank.

IMG_20160607_183308Then we relented to I-80 to get home. By the time we reached Iowa City, we had been road tripping for nearly 14 hours, had put around 400 miles on Jerry’s Jeep, and had listened to 5 episodes of the radio show Cabin Pressure. When he dropped me off at my house, I could only grunt a tired thanks and stumble out. But it was a day well-spent- I got to see a corner of Iowa I don’t usually see, and there’s nothing so satisfying as falling into bed exhausted from a full day.