And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around


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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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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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Hello, Old Friend: On Sunday Morning Walks and Missing My Dead Brother

It’s cloudless, clear blue days like this that make me miss my brother the most. Has it really been almost six months since he died? It’s odd how time doesn’t seem to make sense in relation to loss and grief. One day everything changed, and everything since is the same and different. Sometimes it feels like I’m finding out for the first time, and other times it feels like it’s a heavy fact that I’ve lived with for years.

 

I have the luxury of having Sundays off, for the most part. Today I get out of bed at a decent hour and walk to the coffee shop on the Northside to meet a friend for writing. I pass the local Ace Hardware, with legendary sandwich shop attached. I pass an elementary school, an old brick edifice that looks like the one I attended back in Cedar Falls, one that has long since been torn down. The building is empty, for Sunday and for summer, and the full leaves on the trees flutter and swing, birds and passing cars and rushing leaves and church bell peals all melding together, the summer soundtrack.

 

Days like these remind me that he’ll never see a day this beautiful and clear again. I’m learning that grief can be swift and unpredictable, a summer thunderstorm. Torrential rain out of nowhere, then sun again. Two or three minutes of intense, raw missing, then it’s dormant again, or sometimes the bitter ache gives way to a gratitude for this life, this moment, the beauty in front of me. I must enjoy it, partially because he cannot, and partially because I won’t always be around to enjoy it, either. For whatever reason, these moments seem to happen at times like these, when I’m walking downtown in good weather.

 

I forget things about summertime until it comes around again, the same surprises every year. Unearned sweat from sitting still. Anthills- how do I always forget that sidewalk cracks turn into venues for these incredible miniature edifices? The way the fan at the end of my bed can make my sheet billow up and stay suspended for a few seconds like a dome  above my skin. And this summer is different, with John gone. I didn’t get to see him often, but summer was always our best bet. This summer I won’t get to reunite with him. I won’t get to hug him, get to let him look through my sketchbook, get to sop up his praise that he so easily doled out to everyone, including his little sister.

 

I pass shaded porches, some still lined with burnt-up candles and empty tallboys and cigarette butts from Saturday. It’s a staple of summer here, people chilling on their porches night and day. At night you hear the laughter, see the small red glow of a cigarette, the flash of a beer bottle in the porch light, but rarely the light of a phone. The pastime feels intact from generations past. It’s so straightforward – crack open a cold one, light a cigarette (because apparently people still smoke these days, which baffles me), and shoot the shit with a friend. I doubt even the beer can labels have changed much in 50 years. Some things outlive us.

 

The students are mostly gone, and the ones that remain are free for several months, no longer hunched over tables in the coffee shops, no longer walking in thick clumps around the Pentacrest, backpacks on, phones out. Even though most of the city is still working, it feels like a holiday. This weekend is the arts festival, and only a few blocks away from the coffee shop, the roads are blocked off and swarmed with people, strollers, art tents, food trucks, and dogs on leashes, so many dogs. After the coffee shop, this festival will be my next stop.

 

I pass the Haunted Bookshop, a two-story historic stone house full of tall shelves crammed with used books. The shelves wind into nooks, and occasionally you might find one of the two resident cats. I pass Friday’s barber shop, which is also closed, the snakelike, jumbled plant in the window pressing its spiky limbs against the glass. I pass Bluebird Café and El Banditos, which will be swarmed with brunchers in an hour.

 

John never made it down to Iowa City while I’ve lived here. I would have taken him to the best coffee spots and at night, the bars with the most knowledgeable bartenders, where he would have made quick friends and talked shop. He would have paused somewhere in the middle of our drinks, turned and looked at me, and taken a moment to appreciate everything, the fact that he was there hanging out with me. He was very good at gratitude. I’m trying to learn from that.

 

By the time I reach the coffee shop and wave to my friend, I feel the overloaded sensory thrill of traveling in a new city, though I’ve been home all along, walking a route I’ve made countless times. There’s a special, tender thing about grief that wakes me up from time to time. I am, for the moment, alive, and I know how fragile that is. I can’t be the tour guide for John, show him around my favorite spots. But sometimes I think he’s still teaching me how to look at things with new eyes.


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The Northside Girls

“You know what’s the best shade? Cruella.”

She is talking about lipstick and her name is Ariel, though the way she pronounces it, it’s probably spelled Arielle. Second syllable emphasis. And it fits her. She is too real to be real, in the way a contemporary novel is real. She is carefully constructed, in her large sweater and tight shirt. She can twist her long dyed blonde hair into a bun on the side of her neck and it stays put as if by magic as she talks about how “school fucking sucks.”

“What are you talking about?” Another smoker outside the Fox Head asks.

“Nothing. Girl stuff.” Peach says, and then she is putting lipstick on her male friend, a fortysomething Asian who arrived by surprising her with a light for her cigarette. “No, don’t pucker!”

Peach and Arielle are laughing under the smoke cloud and the street light. Peach talks about the neighborhood drunk who got hit by a car. “He’s totally sweet, though. And so interesting to talk to.”

These are my Northside girls. They share pitchers of beer and know the homeless regulars at the Fox Head and George’s by name, and they go out for cigarettes and chat to people they met other times out there on the bench. They wear eccentric jewelry rescued from antique shop shelves or thrift store piles. They are anachronisms from mismatched time periods, in red shades of lipstick, in fox furs, in cameo jewelry. In the light of day it would seem twee or pretentious, but next to the pitcher of beer, in the Fox Head on a weeknight, they are comforting, and they belong. They blend into the old woodwork, the collection of mantle clocks behind the bar, the tables scratched with initials and doodles and scratches from a collection of bargoers. They are as much a part of this place as the jukebox playing Hank Williams followed by Joy Division in the corner by the pool table. I feel like a visitor here, but they are fixtures. They are the Northside girls.


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Not Goodbye

It’s moving season. Free couches, mattresses, coffee table, TVs that may or may not work, shelves, all sit on the curbs next to moving trucks. I’m moving myself, but only across town. Lotus (Pumpkin’s sister) is moving to Minneapolis, and she and her boyfriend have compressed their possessions into their car and a moving truck. They’re both stressed, but Lotus comes over for a gin martini with Pumpkin and I. I sit on the edge of porch as they share the bench, blankets wrapped around their legs to protect from the chill (it’s unusually cool for July). Pumpkin lays forth her jealousies, Lotus her insecurities. I watch two sisters I love dearly sharing an intimate moment, and I know it’s right that I am not sitting on that porch swing with them, but I also know that it’s okay that I am here witnessing this, sitting with bare legs exposed to the cold mist of the night. 

I also know that it’s okay that Lotus is going away from here. Separations prove friendships. Lotus and I drifted apart after high school ended and we no longer had the French horn section of band or the school plays to keep us in constant contact, but when I moved to Iowa City, we picked up where we left off. Friendships such as these, the kinds that last through long hiatuses and big changes, are rare and wonderful.

My gas light is on when I drop Lotus off at her house after our cocktails. 

“This isn’t goodbye,” Lotus says.

“No, of course not. It’s a see you later,” I insist. We perform the litany of promises: postcards, Skype, emails, visits. I plan to fulfill them all. I am excited for her. I’ll miss her. I’ll miss seeing her with her sister or across a table at a coffeeshop as we both work on our projects. But, I have to keep reminding myself, it’s not goodbye.

I will fill my gas tank. Lotus and I will keep touch. I will close my eyes and hug her tight and not think about any of that at this moment, because we are not saying goodbye.


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Adventures of a Living Statue

I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. For just an hour or two, I wanted to be a piece of art, something people would wonder about and maybe stand and interact with for a while. Inspired by Amanda Palmer’s post-college living statue, The Eight-Foot Bride, I wondered what it would be like.

Tonight was the test run. I didn’t put out a collection jar–I just brought a basket of hand-folded paper cranes, each with the same message sharpied across the paper: “Today has never happened, and it doesn’t frighten me” (Taken from a lyric snippet from Bjork’s song “Alarm Call”). I also wore a get-up of sorts, even though I didn’t have much in the way of costuming. A spangled tube top layered over a lacy shirt. Footless stockings converted into long fingerless gloves. Dark shorts and pink tights. Worn out purple Converses. Gold eyeshadow and heavy black eyeliner. Red lipstick. And the icing on the cake, the black and pink wig Mermaidhair gave me after I threw around the idea of getting a wig.

I went downtown tonight (a Saturday night, still busy despite the summer absence of college students) around 11 and parked myself on a busy corner, holding a simple standing pose, the basket held in one arm. I had created only a couple of rules. Rule #1. Don’t talk while being a statue. No matter what. Rule #2. Don’t move unless someone stops and approaches me or talks to me out of curiosity. If they do, I give them a paper crane from my basket, my gift to them.

I was so nervous when I set out. I prepared for the worst: Food thrown at me, getting shoved over, a random drunk grabbing my breast, swearing at me, stealing of cranes instead of accepting one. 

None of this happened. In fact, some of the responses I got I could never have prepared for.

One guy thought I was homeless. “Here…” He tucked a dollar bill into my basket and gave me a look of pity. “Can I buy you a slice of pizza or something?” I smiled and shook my head. 

Someone else thought I was actually mute, then asked me, “Hablas espanol?” 

Some people unwrapped the cranes to read the messages. Others just looked at it, thanked me, then moved on. 

A couple people tried to puzzle out what this was all for. 

“Are you from Anime Iowa?” Someone asked. Someone else commented on my being from some anime convention. Maybe I need to rethink my getup. I smiled and shook my head.

“Is this a religious thing? Philosphical?” A man with dark curly hair had a whole conversation with me, pressing me with yes or no questions. “Did you go to university here? No? Did you go to college somewhere? Yes? Oh, that’s interesting….is this thing that’s written here some kind of epiphany you had?” I shrug my shoulders and shake my head, still giving him a benevolent smile. 

He finally unwraps it and reads the message, then he touches his lower abdomen. “‘Today has never happened, and it doesn’t frighten me.’ Woah. My stomach hurts right here, just because this is so relevant to me. I have to ask you…shoot. I have a text.” He had to run then, but I couldn’t help falling in love with the man who’d been persistent enough to try and puzzle out the meaning of the statue girl handing out cranes for free on the sidewalk.

I got a little thrill out of knowing that I wasn’t doing it for a specific reason. I just had the urge to. I needed to try it, to interact with people in this strange, singular way. 

A couple young women loved the messages they unfolded from the cranes. “Did you fold these yourself?” Nod. “Wow. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is so cool.” I gave a smile and a bow of thanks then resumed my position.

It’s an unusually cold night for July in Iowa. I wiggled my toes in my Converses a lot, slowly shifted weight on the balls and heels of my feet, wished my long black wig wasn’t falling in front of my face like Samara from The Ring

I waited for the last crane to be taken. I had one crane left and three dollars in my basket–pretty good considering that I hadn’t had any kind of donation jar set up–and I waited for the last person to approach.

It was fascinating, being a mannequin and watching feet go by, listening to snippets of conversation that I would never have noticed if I had been rushing off to meet a friend at one of the bars.

The last person to approach was the man with dark curly hair. “Hey, I’m back. I just wanted to ask, is there something I should do for this? Is there–” I handed him the last crane, then I flung off my wig and flailed my basket around. “WOO-HOO! You got the last crane!” I laughed, then ran off, my joints rejoicing at the movement and my adrenaline pumping from the simple thrill of being strange.

I sort of wished I would’ve talked to him afterwards, but instead I went to Deadwood, used my three earned dollars for a cheap pint, and rubbed my sore muscles. Many passers-by probably thought I was a pathetic beggar, or a stupid waste of space. Some who accepted a crane probably threw it away into a trash bin a few blocks later, or crumpled it up and tossed it into the street. I don’t care. That’s not the point. Art isn’t permanent. 

I realized, as I was standing there, watching the streetlight change from green to yellow to red to green, that my idea of putting a message on the paper before I folded it into a crane was especially interesting, because the receiver of the crane is confronted with a choice: destroy the crane to read the message, or preserve the crane and remain in the dark about what the paper says? There is no right way to proceed.

I felt so alive–ironic, considering that I forfeited my humanity to be a statue that people talked about as if I were inanimate–and I will definitely be doing it again.


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The Ped Mall on a Sunday in July

Heat hits, and then a welcome breeze blows through the corridors of buildings and rustles the trees, and sun and shadows dapple the brick walk. Do you want a bench in the sun or in the shade?

The benches on Washington are reserved for the homeless and the stoners who might be homeless or might just like being barefoot and unwashed, but it’s hard to differentiate, all of them unkempt and black-toothed and probably older than they look. Some hold cardboard signs, some just sit back and smoke or sleep or chat.

I see John, a man in a baseball cap with no home, unless the Foxhead Tavern counts. I ask him what he’s up to today and he smiles and says “not fuck all.” He doesn’t hold up signs asking for money, just walks around or sits on benches and watches things, which is what I’m doing.

In the ped mall crossroads, water shoots up in arcs, and swimsuited toddlers race through the water, screaming and laughing. The fountain, the playground with the springy synthetic turf, the public library, all of it is right there. The center of the world. Paradise for summer children. 

A homeless man has set up a gigantic black air mattress right on the brick walkway, off to the side. 

A grunge teen couple sits by the hostas and watches a lone pigeon, fat from lack of competition. 

But seriously, why is he setting up a king-sized air mattress in the ped mall?

Tattoos and long unkempt hair increase exponentially as you near the Tobacco Bowl. Everyone’s tattoo has a story and even if that’s the tenth woman I’ve seen with a large, sprawling tree on her back, she has ten different reasons for getting it that are hers and hers alone. Teens wear hoodies despite the heat, carry skateboards and travel in packs. Their conversations are the most important in the world and they want everyone to hear them.

Bongos beat, teens loiter. The high-rise construction is progressing, but today is Sunday so the machines sit idle. 

I get excited when I see a table labeled “Free Literature” until I see they’re all Jesus books. I smile anyway and when they offer I say I have too many books in my backpack already, which is true. I decline a flyer, even though the man is stretching out with all of his arm length to give one to me.

There are two public pianos in the ped mall, and sometimes I stop to plink out “Coin-Operated Boy” or some little riff, but usually I watch the kids, feet dangling off the wooden bench, hesitantly poking keys with encouragement from their parents. There are so many keys and some echo a long time, some don’t work at all, and the keys are as uneven as that man’s teeth, the one with the white hair down to his mid-back who has tattoos so faded I can’t even make out what they’re supposed to be.

As I walk toward Dubuque St. I start to see more and more “Help From Above” pamphlets fluttering along the brick sidewalk.

Man and woman cross arms over each other and man kisses her shoulder very softly in the shade.

My copy of Lonesome Dove is falling apart and my backpack gets heavier and I have no idea whether I’m admired or sneered at or unnoticed, but I wonder these things today because I am alone and watching everyone else. If I was with a friend I would be too distracted to care.

But then I wouldn’t get to be the observer, and sometimes that is not such a lonely role to be in.