Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Everything’s going along pretty smoothly. We live in Port Chester, NY. Third grade is drawing to a close. My pixie cut is growing out, I’m looking more and more like a girl by the minute. I made Gerald Braun laugh on the Third Grade Circle Line Cruise around the Statue of Liberty. I’m considered a damn fine speller, if I do say so myself, despite the mishap with “playground” that one time.

Then my dad goes on some kind of sudden trip to Seattle.

My mom is on the phone with him, crying and yelling, “I hate my life! I hate my life!” My brother and I are looking at her and looking at each other. What the hell is going on? She hangs up and tells us we have to go stay at our friend Elaine’s house. She has to go get on a plane to Seattle immediately, tonight. What?? We scramble some things together and my mom calls a limousine service to take her to the airport and drop us at Elaine’s on the way.

Bad vibes.

-Mom, why do you have to fly to Seattle?
-I have to go look at a house.

Holy shit.

Two weeks later, we’re ready to launch this thing. We’re moving to Seattle. Like, right now. We’ve had the garage sale. Danny Covino came with his mom, which was weird. I wondered if it meant he was in love with me. That seemed like the only reasonable explanation. What a time to find this out, right before we’re separated by a country. Ah, well. And now it’s midnight and the giant moving truck is here from King Van Lines, and we were supposed to be on the road several hours ago but something keeps holding us up and it’s making my mom angrier and angrier. It’s about the driver of our moving truck, something about him coming with no people to load the furniture, and something about a gallon of rosé that he’s carrying around and drinking out of all day. His name is Jim, and he wears a t-shirt that says “The Canadian Hippie” on the front. His daughter is about my age, and we get along great. We play in my room while it gets darker and darker and later and later, and it’s difficult to see what my parents are getting all worked up about, but there you go.

1:00 a.m. and we’re finally on the road. Can’t make it too far because, well, it’s 1:00 a.m. We sleep in the car at a rest stop in New Jersey. I’m going to begin to agree that this is weird. We’re sleeping in the car. Yes, I’m with Team Mom and Dad on this one. Sleeping in a car is lame. This is The Canadian Hippie’s fault, we all agree. And suddenly our family is united, and thus begins my two week summer adventure wherein Tina Kunz of the New York Kunzes will become Tina Kunz of the Seattle Kunzes.

Back up. Why are we moving all of a sudden? What’s that all about? Well, at the time I don’t know. But later I’ll hear something about a nervous breakdown, maybe? My dad had a nervous breakdown? Results have never been conclusive. Let’s agree that he had a nervous breakdown. There has always been a lot of mystery around this. I have no new information.

Once we’re on the road, though, he seems fine. He seems great! So, here’s the setup. We have our two cars. My dad drives one of them, and a young friend of the family, Irving, drives the other one. We’ve got CB radios, and we all have handles. (It’s 1978, right in the middle of the CB craze. Everybody’s feeling very Smokey and the Bandit.) My dad is Slowpoke, because he drives really fast. My mom is Mother Hen. My brother is Numbers Man. Irving is Cookie Monster because he eats bags and bags of Chips Ahoys. (He has an alternate handle, Life Saver, because my mom keeps telling him he’s saving our lives.) And I’m Light n’ Lively, which is a brand of milk in New York but not in Seattle.

I always ride with Mom and Dad. Numbers Man sometimes rides with the Cookie Monster, sometimes rides with us. I’ve got my firecracker flag pillow by my side, which was a gift from my third grade class. Everybody signed it. It’s shaped like a firecracker, patterned like a flag. Andy Haas informs me that the Mariners suck. Everybody else writes something sweet, even surprising people. The pillow makes me feel sad and good, and it smells fantastic, sort of warm and powdery. I smell it all the time and I’m always afraid I’m going to suck the smell out of it with my nose by smelling it too much, but that great smell really hangs on. In other flag news, I have a flag puzzle that has all the flags of all the countries in the world, with the name of the country beneath the hole where the flag piece goes, and the name of the capital city printed right on the piece. On their own, released from their countries, the capital city names sound like people’s names, and I assign genders and personalities to them all, and have them mingle with each other. Any capital city that ends with an “a” is a girl, with a few obviously feminine exceptions like Paris. All the others are boys. Ankara and Brasilia are my favorite girls. Athens and Amman are their dates. I have all the cities and their countries memorized in short order.

My superb memory proves to be a coup for us all in Pennsylvania. We stop at a Dutch restaurant for lunch, and they have a challenge going. If anyone at the table can memorize this very long poem about a bird before the check comes, lunch is on the house for your whole party. Our eyes light up. I grab that pansy-ass poem. I’m like a machine. “The Golden Finch is a lovely bird. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.” I have that shit filed away before we order dessert. The moment comes. The waitress and the manager watch as I reel it off. Lunch is free! As a reward, my mom and dad let me go into the gift shop and pick out an enormous, swirly, multi-colored lollipop to take with me in the car. This trip kicks ass. I don’t know what any of us were worried about.

Indiana is GREAT. Don’t know what my parents find so boring about it. There appears to be candy and ice cream available for sale no matter where we stop. Motels everywhere across the country are fantastic. Ice machines.

Every now and then, we'll listen to chatter over the CB, have a little back and forth with Cookie Monster and Numbers Man. I much prefer just talking with our own party. I don't like it when my dad gets into conversations with real truckers. I know they're going to be on to him. They'll know we're driving a Mercedes. They won't care that it's old. They'll know we have no business trying to mingle with real men of the road, that we're fronting like we're CB people. My dad's voice sounds too jovial, too folksy, when he's talking with truckers. My throat closes up until the conversation's over. My dad's average speed is 90 miles an hour, so once in a while we'll pick up a message about a Smokey or a Bear, and my mom'll look anxiously behind us while my dad pretends to be a guy who drives at the speed limit. Then the CB seems worthwhile.

When we're approaching Chicago, my dad gets into a conversation with a trucker. The day is extremely hot and sticky, an irritable kind of day. I don't know what's going on, but I guess this conversation isn't good. My mom looks more and more worried as it goes on, and then it ends. The atmosphere in the car is tense as we get closer to the city, but maybe this is still residue from that conversation. I don't understand. Then we're on a bridge in downtown Chicago, and an eighteen-wheeler has pulled up next to us and is apparently trying to run us off the bridge. My mom is practically screaming. She tells me and my brother to hold a pillow over our faces. We do. A few minutes pass? A few seconds? Nothing happens. We don't fall over the bridge, we're not crushed by metal, but fear and sweat and silence fill the car for many miles.

Iowa's not much to talk about. Corn, corn, corn.

The Badlands are compelling, those strangely formed green hills and cliffs. I peer at the land intently, trying to feel the badness. Something bad must have gone down around here, I think to myself. And then we get to Montana, and Montana fucking outdoes itself. We stay at a giant Holiday Inn in Helena. It has a motherfucking Polynesian-themed pool! Any hotel with a themed pool makes me want to run up and high five all the staff. AND! When we’re going into this hotel, I hold open the door for a man in a ten-gallon hat, and the motherfucking awesome old wealthy cowboy tips me a dollar! This is the first money I’ve ever earned. I stare at my dollar all night.

We’re getting closer to Seattle. Who knows what’s going on with The Canadian Hippie? We’re in worryingly less and less frequent contact with him as we drive across country. The atmosphere is increasingly chilly when we do see him. When we get to North Bend, which is about an hour outside of Seattle, some kind of confrontation happens between my dad and The Canadian Hippie. I don’t get it. I hang out with his daughter again, and we can’t figure out what all the hate is about, but it’s making things awkward for us. It’s less fun to play with her this time. We’re clearly on different teams, like it or not.

We arrive in Seattle on my birthday. July 3rd. It’s overcast. We don’t know anybody. We don’t have any furniture. (The Canadian Hippie abandoned us and our moving van after the mystery confrontation. We found it unlocked in a nearby mall parking lot a week after we got to town. ) My mom buys a Pepperidge Farm cake and puts a cutting board on a small box and throws a pillowcase over it for a tablecloth. She has silver candlesticks that were in a box in the car, and we have candles. We sit on the floor and they sing the birthday song to me. The trip is done. It’s cloudy and strange and quiet here, and I’m nine, and I live in Seattle.

(Cross-posted, as is the trend these days, from Writing, Writer, Writest. I've expanded it for The Gallivanting Monkey. I was respecting word limits over there. I don't have to respect a goddamned thing over here. Also, our moving truck looked just like the one in the picture. Atlas Van Lines ate King Van Lines. Based on performance, that can't have been too tough. I like to think that Jim is passed out just below view. Okay, then. All the good numbers* to you.)

*best wishes

Friday, September 17, 2010

i will never marry you

When my husband and I got married, a friend of ours read a poem aloud called The Very Short Sutra on the Meeting of the Buddha and the Goddess. In the poem, the Buddha’s kicking it of an afternoon, wandering around like the Buddha does, walking. Just walking. And then this naked red goddess with long blue hair pops up in front of him and blocks his path, all HWAA! Here I am! And the Buddha’s all, hey! Why you gotta pop up and get in my way? I was just going about my business, cool, Buddha-style. (Also, the Buddha clocked that she was a very foxy naked goddess, because he’s not dead, after all.) And she said, and I quote, “You can go around me, or you can come after me, but you can’t pretend I’m not here. This is my forest, too.” Then the Buddha and the Goddess get into this sort of sexy, challenging face-off. He assumes this rock-solid meditative posture, and starts telling her about how after arduous practice he’s penetrated reality, and she’s like NOT SO FAST, I AM REALITY. And then they really get into it, but never mind. We can leave them there. I’ve arrived at my point.

For years I’ve been toggling back and forth between Buddhism and Hinduism, and it’s driven me nuts that I couldn’t land on one of them. They’re each so attractive in their different ways. Buddhism is cool, impeccable, unflashy. You can’t argue with the logical empiricism of Buddhism, or you can, but Buddhism doesn’t mind. It can wait all day. Argue yourself in circles. Eventually you’ll tire, and Buddhism won’t have been even mildly scratched by your efforts. I can’t think of another religion that gives near as much attention to epistemology as Buddhism does, and then it has the grace to set it down and get to pure practice. It’s so incredibly secure. It’s the most secure, unflappable religion in the world. When did the Buddhists ever flip out and wage a holy war? Never is when. They’ve conducted themselves with great class through the centuries. Buddhism has its head down and its eyes on its own work, and it gently suggests you do the same. Am I gushing? I might be. I confess a crush. I had a crush on a fella one time purely because he was so calm and sensible -- so calm and sensible, in fact, that it struck me as terribly manly. Buddhism’s like that for me. So elegant and brave and adult. Swoon.

At the same time, though, if we’re going to run with this choosing-a-religion-as-taking-a-lover notion (and we are), hmm. Buddhism, gosh. You’re so cool, such a catch, quietly sexy in your way. But I’d sort of like to have the sense that you could flip out now and again, get mad, get ecstatic. That’s what I’m missing. That’s why I can’t commit. It’s not that you don’t have danger. You do. There are some essential safety nets you don’t provide, and that’s daring, that’s provocative. But you never seem to do anything wrong. You never mix it up.

Cue the sitar and a supersexy four-armed blue god strides on to the scene. WHAT…is that? And then the sky fills with somersaulting gods and goddesses in all flavors: ridiculous, wonderful, elephant-headed Ganesha, Hanuman the Monkey God, the triumvirate of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, with their respective girlfriends (!) Sarasvati (special power: music, knowledge and the arts – she plays the veena) (Me neither. Like a guitar?), Lakshmi (wealth, grace and beauty: who can turn the world on with her smile?) and Kali (who will fuck your shit up and add you to her necklace of skulls). There’s Durga, riding down the sky on her tiger or lion, whatever she’s in the mood for that day, swinging her ax and taking out demons. There’s Krishna, The Cosmic Player, with his long lashes and his blue skin, and his patient main squeeze, Radha, and they’re hot with love for each other. These gods and goddesses are like a divine Superfriends - and they sound like cartoons - but when you dive in to each of their lore, you see they stand for particular principles of reality, laws of physics, natural phenomena, and there’s plenty of sophistication in the layout. Hinduism is full of epic stories, battles and sex and revenge and undying love. It’s unreasonable and fiery and vast, and it sizzles with nuclear magic. The cosmos is like a giant silver screen, and the Hindu pantheon strides across it like so many movie stars. It’s the oldest religion in the world, with thousands of years of heft to it. Plus: gurus*! If you can wade through the sea of false ones and get lucky enough to find your very own real one with your name on him or her, zing! You have booked a ticket to enlightenment. May take a while, but it’s booked. Your guru is contractually obligated to make that happen.

*Buddhism quietly adds, “We have teachers. It’s in the same neighborhood. It’s worth noting.” You do, Buddhism, and I like your spin, there. Your way feels less confining, and you seem to invite more personal responsibility. No, I dig. I dig it.

Quit armwrestling, fellas**. You’re BOTH gorgeous.

**by which I mean quit trying to arm wrestle Buddhism, Hinduism. Buddhism is ignoring you, anyway.

Okay. The sex appeal of both religions has been established. Time to examine compatibility. I would so like to pair up with just one of you and make a go of it.

Buddhism, I like who I am when I’m with you. You make me get serious, you encourage me to let go of my illusions. You calm me, ultimately, even if you make me terribly tense for a while on the way there. I feel mature, womanly, ready to face facts. You cool my proverbial fevered brow. You drag me out of my head and into the stream of time and place in front of me. It’s now. It’s here. There’s nothing else. The world may be twisted and dark and relentless with suffering, but we’re not hiding, and the blessings we find along the way are as real as rocks.

Hinduism, I like the world best when I’m with you. The world seems like a miraculous, benevolent circus with glowing peel-away layers through which more light shines, more dazzle manifests. I feel like a child, incredibly well-loved, with my hands held by enormous cosmic Mommies and Daddies who leap me over the puddles and whisk me out of harm’s way. I work my way around my beaded mala, chanting the mantras you gave me, and I feel something sparkling through my body, wafting around my head. You let me be so human, you meet me where I am, you never make me feel ashamed.

I can’t do it. I can never choose. I will never choose. I want both, and I’ll have you both, but never fully. And it’s all right, almost. Well, it’s wonderful. I’m very happy. I have, of course, just one relationship with one Divine, who switches shirts according to my mood. I can swing from one vine to the other and get across the abyss just fine the way I’m doing it. When I meditate, I can touch you both. And if I’m honest, I’ll confess this: Hinduism, you’re probably my true love. I’m fairly sure that you are. But as long as Buddhism walks the earth, I won’t marry you.

(Cross-posted from Writing, Writer, Writest. But I'm gonna give you some extras, because I can do that over here.)


1) One of Finn's favorite Hindu YouTube treats. (He could watch these all day.) This is a slightly pared-down version of the go-to Gayatri mantra, which my brother taught me when I was small.

2) Sita Sings the Blues. By rights, you should have seen this in an art-house movie theater somewhere. Second choice is watching the DVD. It's my pleasure to bring you the lamest option of all, knowing that it's still so much better than nothing. Don't even think about not watching this in some form. You'll rue the day.

Monday, September 13, 2010


It’s the hot water you were born into. You were in it before that, even, steeped in your mama’s body. But you come out and go right into the family pot, and the flavor is simmered right into you, for good or for ill. It smells like your family, it tastes like your family. You can’t get away from it, no matter how far you go, but you won’t really know which part is you and which part isn’t. Is some part of your bones your own? How far down into my body do I have to go to find some purity*? Is all I am apart from my family some faint dot of light, a web of thoughts? Whose brain is this?

*I almost exclusively see this purity in my own children, though. They may have steeped in me but I feel more like a door they walked through, completely independent except for the shape of an eye, the angle of an eyebrow. They had to get here somehow. It had very little to do with us. To me, they came as the adults they’re going to be, wrapped in the temporary, frustrating chrysalis of their own baby suits. But that’s them.

On the one hand, I don’t want to be a part of a family, a member of an inescapable group where fifteen of us are walking around with the same mouth. A family is like a cult, and the curl at the side of your lip that you share with Cousin Sue is the telltale marker. We’ve both been there. We know.

Bound by a secret, bound by something that only your family understands, bound by a sadness, your family’s sadness. Your own family’s shame: no one else’s is like it. Good to have a place to go where people also know the secret, the secret thing that renders you a family. Not everyone likes this soup. It’s a family recipe. It tastes familiar, we all love it. We’re used to it.

Two blood lines. One side of the family dominates. The other I can’t see. It’s like the portrait you can stare at that’s a woman from one angle, a vase from the other – only here all I can see is the vase, no matter how plainly visible the woman is. One side bullies the other side out of existence. Van Gelders* trump Valtanens. My father’s side wins.

*My father’s mother’s maiden name was Van Gelder. My maiden name is Kunz, so wherever you see the word Van Gelder, you can substitute Kunz. However, it was the Van Gelder wing that was the loudest and the closest, so it’s Van Gelder from here on out.

In the Van Gelder family trunk: 1) Clairvoyance, passed like a beam from generation to generation, a light right between the eyebrows. No, a window, and through that window the light passes. 2) Volume, vehemence, fight. 3) Something bent, something twisted. Secrets. Pockets of ill mental health. 4) Treasures from the Far East. Chinese and Indonesian blood, years logged in India and on Java. Philosophy. Spices. A framed, gilded leaf from the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat when he reached enlightenment, the leaf an offshoot from the original plant, like all of us descendants that have come down the line. 5) Vintage stories with famous faces passing through. Henry Miller, Gloria Swanson, Salvador Dali, George Bernard Shaw, E.E. Cummings. The effect altogether is shabby, tweedy, glamorous.

And then, shoved into a corner, is my mother’s side: so vivid for her, so inaccessible for the rest of us. She grew up on a farm in Northern Finland. The farm was called Siertola, and for her it was like Tara. Her memories are of cows, and skating on frozen lakes, and yellow leaves, and the texture of her wool coat. They’re beautiful to her, they’re moving, and they can barely be heard over the Van Gelder din. The Valtanen music is too quiet, it’s too spare. Long, slow, single cello notes against a wintry background. So much is marked by absence. I met my grandmother before she died – she was just like a stick figure. Skinny, with straight hair that stuck out, and no English. I couldn’t tell what she was like. And then she was gone. My grandfather left her when my mother was one, so he wasn’t there. He was a streak of dark hair, a cloud of alcohol, one meeting with my mom when she was 15. “I hear you’re my daughter.” “That’s what they tell me.” And then he was gone, too. Valtanen faces are broad, their limbs are sturdy. I only know what we look like. I don’t know who we are.

Finland was too far, and we only had the one representative, so we defaulted to Van Gelder. We were swarmed by cousins on Sunday nights, talking about Theosophy and arguing over curry at the dinner table. Voices rising, arms waving. Privately, I loved it. It was warm and wild and loud and familiar and it felt almost like mine. Publicly, Van Gelder blood was freak blood and I wasn’t happy about it. We were vegetarians before anyone knew what the hell that was. We were Theosophists. “What the fuck is that?” asked everybody. (Can’t do it for you. Not now. God bless Google.) My grandmother was a famous clairvoyant who as a young girl transmitted messages from soldiers who died in Gallipoli to their families, healed people with her hands. It felt like we were the goddamn Munsters. I felt like Marilyn, looked like Eddie, worked on being the Munster who could blend in, pass for Grade B if not Grade A American. I dumbed it down, blanded it up, played to the crowd. “What religion are you?” (Oh, shit.) “We’re…Christians.” I learned to tell jokes, be cool, shake off the familial stuffiness. I loved being free of it. I loved making my own persona.

Oh, man.

Here comes the regret. There’s something too poignant here that I don’t want to look at. Distancing myself from my family, rejecting them. Subtly. There’s betrayal in here somewhere, and I don’t know who did it first. I don’t want to look. And there’s a love that I don’t want to talk about either.

What can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth.

There’s something at the core that I didn’t show you, that I can’t show you, that you’d never be able to see anyway, because you’re not my family.

This is hard. Family. Jesus. I’m losing my way, here, maybe on purpose.

I buck at being part of a family. I would sort of rather be alone. It can’t be helped, though. Also, that’s not true, and I love them. Oh, who knows? The topic makes me want to stick my head out of the window. It makes me need air. And we don’t have time to properly address this. The hot water we’re born into, the haunted houses we grew up in. The drama soaked into the walls. Aeschylus, Tolstoy, Ibsen, O’Neill. Everybody knows the family is a killer. The safest place on earth, right? Your home. Wonderful. The back of your hand. Yes! True! And you spend your whole life dismantling the little bombs they accidentally planted inside you. (That’s too dramatic and also not dramatic enough.) Whatever note I leave this on, it’s the wrong note. What did you do to me? Thank you for everything, sincerely. The other one. Both.

This did nothing any justice. Sorry, family.

P.S. This is cross-posted from my dear friend Josh Grimmer's new concern,Writing, Writer, Writest, which he's set up in order that not-writing-enough writers could begin to write more. So I'll be writing there each week on their given theme, and occasionally cross-posting over here. Do go and look. There are some real gems.