Wednesday, July 30, 2014

the force had better be with you

Back when I gave tarot readings for dollars, there was a card in the deck that I always stumbled over a bit. The fucking Six of Pentacles. (Swear's mine. It's not officially known as The Fucking Six of Pentacles, though it might as well be be because it addresses something that screws most people up in one way or another.) The Six of Pentacles has to do with giving and receiving, and whether you've got a healthy relationship to the particular end of the equation you're occupying the most heavily at the moment. 

They say that when you're doing readings and you have a little trouble interpreting a particular card, that card might be something you have problems with in your own life. Hello, there.

I never gave a lot of conscious thought to how I gave or received until I worked with a writing teacher who used to talk about the importance of getting your receiving valve functioning. She said that it's particularly common for women to have their giving dial cranked all the way open and their receiving dial jammed somewhere near the off position. It was jarring to hear about this whole receiving mechanism business, for some reason. I pictured a twin set of copper pipes running through me somewhere, and while I was cool when I contemplated the one that flowed outward, it made me feel weird to think about the other one. When I imagined giving special attention to things flowing in my direction, it made me feel selfish and demanding, like some kind of pop diva with an elaborate dressing room rider. Tina requires fourteen boxes of Tazo Refresh tea; one bag of fun-sized Kit Kats; a case of 1998 Argyle Pinot Noir; a handmade silk Snuggie; two Wagyu beef cheeseburgers; a first edition of the collected poems of e.e. cummings; one adult male panda, etc. Obviously I'd absorbed some cracked ideas about give and take, and I preferred to identify exclusively as a giver, which was a nicer thing to be, and safer, too, or so I thought.

A huge portion of my identity, in fact, was built around being a giver. And let me tell you, while I did give a lot, it didn't spring from a totally saintly impulse. I gave all kinds of things, and I might have thought I didn't have any expectations in return but, oh, I did. 

When you give compulsively, you can fall into the trap of imagining that that's all you're doing, but I think if you're jammed into giving mode, your whole system goes out of whack and some part of you tips into unconscious thirst. You might sport a nice, crisp martyr complex, and if you don't get flamboyant enough recognition for your efforts, you're going to give off the smoky odor of resentment. Or you burn yourself out, get emotionally labile/crumbly and become an unwitting drain on other people. I bet I could pick up some affidavits on that front if I cast back through the years. Sorry, folks!

I didn't know I was an unhealthy, compulsive giver. I thought I was just a peach, doing my thing. I wanted to give! I gave money, elaborate gifts, shoulders to cry on, sex, attention, cigarettes—whatever anybody wanted, whatever seemed valuable. And I didn't know when I was overdoing it, either, because I didn't know how to check that out. 

I had no idea how to drive this thing—this body, this bundle of life force. And honestly, I didn't care. My stance towards myself, if you can call it one, was neglect. I didn't take care of things for myself. I flunked out of college, though I was intelligent enough to have made it through. I wouldn't pay my bills on time, even though I could have, and was constantly in danger of having my electricity/water/phone service shut off. I ate only enough to justify my next cigarette. I'd put off taking out the garbage, developing a fruit fly colony that I was constantly trying to vacuum out of the air. I bottomed out when I neglected a summons to appear in court (way too long a story for today), further neglected the warrant for my arrest and spent nine hours in jail ('nother day, I promise), where I learned, to my surprise, that I was actually real. I'd neglected myself so dreadfully because I sort of thought I wasn't, and so how I treated myself didn't seem like an object of any importance. 

What, you may ask, was my damage? You can never totally pin that kind of thing down, but this post addresses some of it. (Warning for those who haven't read it: not easy material.) 

Short form: there was some emotional neglect (and worse) passed down through the generations. I was taken care of physically and financially, and given a great education (which I squandered), but beyond that there was a hole. In any case, I got that I didn't matter, and I thought a good way to matter was to figure out what people wanted and give it to them—shower them with it, even. 

But it wasn't free, nope, not with this giving tree. I wanted things back. I wanted to be loved, adored. I wanted to be a lavish, un-ignorable presence. I wanted to be a big, sparkly fountain to which everybody would flock. World-famous, super-delicious, the best source of love and happiness and comfort and pleasure going. I wanted to be addictive, you see, and impossible to abandon. 

There's a Hindu goddess, Lakshmi, who's the patron saint of all this. She's the goddess of prosperity and abundance and love and beauty—a more maternal Aphrodite, more domestic, sweeter. You see her in all the imagery sitting or standing on a lotus blossom in her rosy red sari, with gold coins showering from her hands (four to choose from, with those four arms—more to give with!), hair flowing to her waist, a lavish figure, huge doe eyes. Everything about her is lush  silky, spilling over. She doesn't just give wealth, either; she gives happiness, and if you chant her maha mantra 125,000 times, you might be granted some of her happiness-bestowing powers. I know this because I tried it, though I petered out several months before the powers were due to hit.

Once not long after college, I went on a road trip with my friends Scott, Hunt and Dan back to our campus to pay a visit to some of our friends who were still in school. This was in 1991, after the biopic of The Doors had come out, with Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison and Meg Ryan as Pamela Courson. I was obsessed with the movie, in love with the idea of the sixties, all that excess and free love and abandon—and those round, colorful granny sunglasses that Meg Ryan had were cute as fuck, so I got myself a blue pair and wore them everywhere. I kept my hair long and dyed it auburn, and dressed as hippie-chic as I could. When the guys rolled up to my house to pick me up and head out on the road, we decided to adopt nicknames for the trip based on our initials. Scott became Simon (&) Garfunkel Rock, Dan became Dr. Mealymouth Shithead, Hunt was a contrarian and chose MC Dum Boy for himself, and Dan handed me the jackpot with Truly Lavish Karma, which was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to project. If I'd have known of Lakshmi then, I would have squee'd with the Lakshmi-ness of it all.


I used to divide people into two categories: brittle or lush. I preferred lush people by a wide margin. I was attracted to people who gave it all up, or appeared to. I didn't like it when people held themselves in reserve, because I never did, and I often mistook reserve for brittleness. A brittle person was any blend of the following: rigid, judgmental, cold, unaffectionate, uptight, or generally uncomfortable with feelings. I'm still not nuts about people who dip very far into that list, but I've come through experience to appreciate reserve.


In August of 2012, I got sick, which I've mentioned here a couple of times before. What started out looking like a cold eventually had me bed-bound for upwards of six months. I couldn't function, couldn't take care of our kids, and suddenly Dave had to do it all. 

The first problem was air. Bronchitis turned into asthmatic bronchitis which turned into a pure, debilitating asthma, which I'd never had in my life. Let me just say: breath, man. You don't want your breath fucked with. When the asthma kicked all the way in and I was locked in bed, I'd have hours where I couldn't guide any in-breaths at all. I'd feel an episode coming on and stack three pillows right in front of me, and then I'd bend over and lie limp on my stack with my mouth hung open, pure emptiness, waiting for inhalations to visit. I didn't get upset about it; I couldn't. Feeling took breath. Not available.

At other times, I'd get what felt like a brief, electric twinge-thwack to the heart, and then a black, downward-pulling feeling would creep up from inside my guts. It felt like death was pooling down there, trying to suck me in, and I'd physically hoist myself up as far as I could to stop myself from sinking into the pool. My guess is that these were panic attacks. 

The next phase of the illness after the asthma passed was adrenal fatigue. On a good day I could sit up in bed and watch a movie, maybe have a thin-voiced conversation with Dave or the kids for a little while. On a bad day, I couldn't sit up or talk or hold a book or even a fork, but just lie on my side. Dave would come in to ask me something and I'd give a barely perceptible shake of my head to wave him off. I couldn't field questions, or movement, or anything. I read an inspirational quote on Facebook on a good day that I'd mentally clutch on a bad one, "All you need is a thin breath, a heartbeat and now," which was a fine thing because as often as not, that was the tally. 

Then my immune system went down and my lymph nodes went haywire, at which point my doctor diagnosed me with CFIDS, or Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Hadn't enjoyed the journey thus far, flipped a little at the idea that this could rage on indefinitely, but my doc had some ideas for how we might treat it, which involved adjusting my diet and giving me one thousand supplements. 

This kicked me into the final, shittiest few weeks of my illness, where I was throwing up all day and night. I couldn't eat—if I choked down a pinky's worth of steak or three bites of refried beans  in a day with the help of medical marijuana and intensive self-coaching, that was good work—and eventually couldn't even keep liquids down, and now things were looking grave, as in possibly "the". Scary times. I was admitted to the hospital, spent a couple of weeks there while the doctors gave me IV fluids, ran tests and scratched their heads, and then my ship began to right itself. 

I got better. A year and a half later, I'm totally fine. 

But of course, naturally, I look back and ask WHAT DID THAT MEAN? How do I interpret that long, horrible dream? Because I'm not walking out of there empty-handed. I'm grabbing some meaning because you better fucking believe I am. 

Here's what I think: I went on strike. I shut down to make a point. I wasn't making a point to anyone else, either; I went on strike against myself. Me, the management, with my brute incompetence and total lack of empathy towards my worker/myself. I used to give to get love way past the point of resistance. I'd feel an energy drain in my middle, anywhere between a trickle and a firehose blowing energy out of my solar plexus, and I'd be like, oh, there's that thing again. Oh, well. Nothing to be done. Love to get. Carry on. And I finally revolted. I could either start over and get it right or I could get the fuck out of this body, and I went with the former. 


When I was in my freshly post-illness, strength-gathering phase, I was delighted and amazed by how simple my needs were. I didn't need to be anything other than alive. Sitting in the sun while the breeze ruffled the grass/my hair and my kids darted in and out of my arms was fullness itself. I'd get up and let my bare feet push against the earth, and I'd try to feel the energy from the planet seeping up my legs, going wherever I wanted it to go, and it felt so good it was absurd. Absurdly Lavish Karma. 

I became fascinated by—what do I want to call it? Life force? Energy? Chi? Prana? I was mesmerized by the thing which moves us, the thing which animates us, the thing that corpses don't have. Are life and energy distinguishable? Are they different? I'm still awestruck by it, whatever it is, that force. I don't need a different god than that one. 

I think about all the energy I poured into others, and that I wanted them in turn to supply me with, and duh, I see now there's an obvious middle way, with an eliminated middleman. These days I meet my own needs first, nearly without exception, so I can give from a position of strength. And if I only have five spare energy dollars to spend, then that's that, and I'm not borrowing against myself. Five dollars is fine. I can spend that thoughtfully and with love. 

One of the funniest, best real-life gifts I ever got, in fact, was from my friend Kristen on the birthday right before I got sick. She gave me a brown paper lunch sack with nothing but a three-pack of travel tissues in it, with an orange and yellow bow (one of those stick-on bursts of ribbon curls, which looked hilariously/pitifully festive on that crumply sack) and a note she'd written on the bag in ball-point pen, pointing out that maybe these might come in handy because I cry a lot. She nailed me, with love, and it was so spot-on. It's right up there in my All Time Greatest Gifts Received pantheon, which has some doozies in it, and I bet it cost about $3.48.

(I don't cry with anything like that kind of frequency any more, by the way. I cry like a normal, not-that-weepy person, which is a sign that I've made some good adjustments.)

I give less than I used to. I give a lot less, even. But when I give, it's more often because I genuinely want to, and not so much because it's the opening gambit in some unconscious, would-be emotional trade. I'm taking the gamble that my value isn't based on what I give, that I have intrinsic value already. 

I also pay a lot more attention to how the people I interact with drive their energy ship now, and I gravitate toward the ones who seem to manage their energy well, who seem attuned to how it works. I relax and open up in their presence. They make me feel springy and refreshed.  And the converse is true, too. I have a little mule in me which digs in its heels and doesn't want to go forward if I'm in an exchange with someone whose energy seems out of balance/out of control, or somebody who's perpetually resentful, which is another sign of not-great energy management. I hold myself in a bit more reserve now. I'm not first-come, first-serve like I used to be. It's like dancing or tennis: your own game is better with a good partner, and I'm choosier about who I mingle my life-force with and how I mingle it with them after my little trip to the underworld.


We have a friend visiting us from New York right now, her name is Baly, and this last Sunday we went out with some friends of hers. We had a glorious trip on Lake Union in their boat, and at the end of the outing, during the golden hour when afternoon was swinging into evening, we all visited a community pea patch in their neighborhood. It was a huge, multi-tiered garden filled with Guinness-Book-of-World-Records-sized produce all aglow in that neon amber sunset. Massive, swollen zucchini, lemon cucumbers, fat marionberries, towering NBA sunflowers, the smell of rosemary and mint and lavender and basil wafting around: it was a balls-to-the-wall pea patch Garden of Eden. Finn and Fred ran around shrieking in amazement. Hell, we all did. I fell in love with some monster chard with fuschia-red stems so dazzlingly lurid I wanted to be them. I wanted to be the whole garden. This place was stupid, nuts, bananas with life force. It was completely aspirational and not just in the vegetable sense. Whoever the stewards are, they're wizards. Ballers. They're full-on, flip-around-in-mid-air gardening Jedis. 

And I love Jedis. You know I do. You see Yoda sitting over there in my sidebar. He's not just there to look pretty. He's a reminder (and that garden is a reminder and my crumply bag of tissues is a reminder and my illness was a king hell reminder) that there's nothing cooler and more interesting and more important than learning to work the goddamn Force, and to do that, you have to know when to dish it out and when to take it. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

los animalitos

Confession, and one that I think makes me less of a rocking good human: I'm not an animal person. I mean, I am an animal, so in that sense I'm either in denial or I'm the most reprehensible kind of social climber, denying my own people/fellow animals like that, but it's true. Taken as a whole, animals weird me out. If they spoke, that would help. And English, while we're at it, would be good. But I'd be down with Portuguese or Arabic or Swahili or French or whatever, because it would tell me we're sort of working in the same cognitive realm, and that would be comforting. If somebody's talking, then they're probably thinking, and I like that. Also, as a habitual people-pleaser, I can't please you if I can't figure out what you want, and if you're an animal and I don't anticipate your needs, I don't know how reasonable you're going to be about that. Like, what's the penalty? A pecking? Execution? 

I'm not totally solidly in the realm of the rational here. I know. Don't come at me with your logic, either. I don't take that kind of currency on this topic. 

See, so I think I'm a little not-quite-cooked as a human being. I admire the animal lovers and cuddlers, the rescuers of strays, the horse whisperers, the cat ladies, the falconers (somebody's doing it), all you Saint-Francis-of-Assisi types. You are better people than I am. You are more evolved. I mean it. Hats off. You've got it going on. I want to be more like you, so I'm here breaking it down today. I'm snuggling up to the concept of animals in my mind, and this is a start. 

It's equal parts attraction and repulsion for me with animals. Let me say right away that I have a good partial excuse on the repulsion front, which is allergies. I'm wicked allergic to dander and fur and animal saliva. I get hives and my chest tightens and it's painful to breathe. Also, the back of my throat is a fur magnet. If a room has fur debris around, it will shoot into my mouth and I will gack and hack until my eyes water. It's pretty to look at, and it feels good.  

But also, l'm a little stressed-out by how uncool animals are. I don't mean uncool like "they're assholes". I mean that they're not known for their restraint. They go for what they want. They're impulsive. Dolphins sexually assault people. Dolphins! If you can't trust a fucking dolphin, the whole game is lost. 

I'm investigating this because we're considering getting a pet. My sons are huge animal lovers, and they're dying to get somebody furry into our family. Allergies are a concern, but I know there are dogs that are easier on allergy-havers than others, and I've successfully lived with some cats in my life. And I'm not made of stone. I'm susceptible to adorableness like normal people. Finn and Fred and I google-image Labradoodles and my heart skips a beat like a real human lady's. 

Question number one always seems to be, "Are you a cat person or a dog person?" Everybody is ostensibly one of these people, and I suppose I better work out which I am, especially if we're going to pick one. Because we're not picking both, as God is my witness.

Dog people seem like they're part of some elite, windblown, outdoorsy club. Dog people probably ski, or play tennis, or touch football, or they surf. They're leap-y and athletic and healthy and well-adjusted. I picture myself at the dog park with a dog, and other dog owners looking at me like, "Who lent you the dog? That's not your dog. Go get that poor guy back to his owner. You're traumatizing him." 

So you'd think this would indicate that I'm not a dog person, ergo I'm a cat person. You'd think too soon!

I've lived with cats, yes. I've lived with Patches, Veronica, Lela, Desperado, Toonces and Gilbert. (In case you know them.) Just because I lived with cats doesn't mean I ever instigated it, though. I never instigated it. I was just along for the ride. The first three cats on the list were our family's cats when we were growing up, one after the other. Patches was the first, when we lived in New York. Patches was whatever. Patches was fine. My brother was the cat guy, see? If you ask David about Patches, or Veronica, or Lela, you better buckle in because rhapsody is going to get waxed. There will be talk of the ancient Egyptians and cat worship. There will be ooh-ing, cooing noises—just noises, noises of love, exclamations. It's a scene, man. I did not inherit this gene. 

Cats love me, though, because I can take them or leave them. I give them space, and they're all, "Who IS she? She's fascinating! She's irresistible. I must know her better. I love her. She has a je ne sais quoi." And then they're all chasing me around the revolving chair while I spin to avoid getting jumped on, and they're bumping their heads against my leg all luxurious-like, and purring their little faces off. It's sad! Cats! Come on! Have some self-esteem! Didn't you ever read He's Just Not That Into You? You'll feel weird when you do, cats, I'm telling you. Pang of recognition. 

Veronica and Lela were also fine, whatever. Desperado and Toonces and Gilbert were cats I lived with in college with my housemates. Desperado wandered on to our porch one night and threw himself on my friend Jen's lap, and that was that. He was dark brown, fat, and he only had one gigantic ball. He could walk, but he couldn't stand still without tipping over on his side; I imagine he was thrown off-balance by his ball issue. Toonces was orange and stinky. She had one spot on her back that she could never get clean, just one little sticky bit. They were depressing, frankly.

But then there was Gilbert, who was the only pet I've really been mad for. Gilbert was a slick little black-and-white kitty, all tuxedo'd-out, and he had grace and style and what even appeared to be compassion. I remember weeping on my pillow one night about an ex-boyfriend, and Gilbert curled himself around my head and wiped my tears away as they fell. I mean, really. In retrospect, I think he was probably like "Face game! Water on face. Move slowly so as not to scare the small waters, but then get them," which I interpreted as, "There, there. He wasn't good enough for you. Forget him. You have me." 

One night in college when I was walking home from the theater, I saw Gilbert blocks and blocks away from home. I didn't pick him up because I don't pick animals up because of fur and claws and bones and oh my god. Shiver. No. I cannot. But I loved him still, in my way, and wanted him home safe, so I lured him home walking backwards/bent over, beckoning him and making seductive baby talk. Jesus God, it was a task. A walk that should have taken ten minutes took an hour. Giiiiil-berrrrrt. C'mon, baby. C'mon, kitty. Smooch smooch smooch. C'mon, kitty-baby. Come on. Come on. That's it. Over here. Hey baby. Baby. Over here. Yeah. That's it. 

I got in the door and there were all my housemates in the living room, and I was like, "You guys! I found Gilbert!" They looked at me blankly, and I looked at the couch, where Gilbert was already sitting. Oh. Well, who the fuck was this I'd just seduced home so hard? Uh-oh. And then I had to give Not-Gilbert the boot. Super. "Say, listen, thanks for walking home with me and everything. I had a nice time. Hope you did, too. Welp. Go away now. Go be outside now. Go. Bye." I shut the front door, and Not-Gilbert hung from the screen door with his claws, wailing. Oh, man, that was one for his journal, whoever that was. ONCE I MET A TROLLOP AND SHE FUCKED ME OVER AND LEFT ME FOR DEAD. NEVER TRUST A WOMAN. I'M OUT OF WHISKEY.

On the strength of Gilbert alone, I'd say I'd teeter in the direction of cats, but they have those claws, and those teeth. I know dogs do, too, but with cats they seem pierce-ier and knife-ier, and I feel like cats indulge themselves with that shit more often, and more unpredictably. I don't like that you could have a cat snuggling on your lap and you can suddenly get shanked in the leg for no reason. WTF? Don't stab me, fuckers. I don't care if it's a love stab. I don't care if you're playing. That is a fucked-up game, "Stab the Lady". If a person suddenly stabbed me—even just in fun, whee!—I would dial 911 immediately. 

Why do the most adorable pets have to be so potentially sharp? I'm against it.   

And do not speak to me about turtles or lizards or snakes or rodents, all the potential pets from the "other" category. Weasels and ferrets and whoever. (Hamsters are no go. Too vulnerable/inscrutable/high octane.) And if I can barely handle the otherness of a dog or a cat, who are respectively the vanilla and chocolate of Animal Flavor Metaphor Town, there isn't the first chance I'd be down with some wasabi motherfucker like an iguana.

But Tina, what about-

NO. You were going to say birds. Birds are the worst. I am an almost-complete ornithophobe. Once I was forced by fate to walk through a parking lot that was carpeted, carpeted in pigeons. I prayed please don't take off please don't take off please don't take off and when I was halfway to my car THEY ALL FUCKING TOOK OFF. I froze and covered my head and screamed and there was flapping flapping flapping everywhere and they touched me with their wings and it probably only went on for five or ten seconds but I died, came back to life and was re-killed again once every second. So that's long. That's five to ten lifetimes.

Our next-door neighbors have chickens, whose pen they thoughtfully keep far away from their house/snuggled right next to ours. Every morning there's a farm-fresh cacophony right beneath our bedroom window. And until the fence was reinforced, they kept muscling into our yard. You'd see a little horrible chicken head trying to work its way under the fence, all I AM COMING FOR YOU. 

When something has fur, you can maybe reason with it, mammal-to-mammal, or soothe it with a violin. If it has feathers, especially fluffy fucked-up fowl feathers, it cannot understand you. It is bent on its own aims.

Another time I was chased by turkeys. I don't want to talk about it. And once a housemate went outside and threw a rock at some loud crows early one morning, and you had best believe we were fucked from then on. I came home one afternoon and found the way to the door blocked by a squawking, menacing group of maybe a dozen crows. I sat in my car for 45 minutes and then called an ex-boyfriend, crying, to come over and help me get inside, which he very kindly did. (I bet he misses me.) 

I've done work on my crow phobia, though, with huge success. For the last sixteen years, to make up for fraternizing with the rock-thrower, I've waged an intense psychic Good Vibes Shock and Awe campaign toward crows. I know they can remember specific people for something like twenty years, and they pass the news on to all their friends and relatives and everything, so you have got to step right with them. So I'm on top of that beeswax every which way. Whenever I'm outside and I see a crow, I beam every last variation of  "I come in peace" and "Blessings upon your young" and "May your endeavors succeed" and "May your food be plentiful" and "May your people triumph" their way and a miracle has occurred, I shit you not. I like them now. I like crows. I almost love them. It's spontaneous and genuine. When I see a crow hop by, or I see one on my fence, I say "Hello, sir" like it's my beloved village elder, and I feel a little bubble of warmth around my heart. I would nearly hug a crow. (I practice this in my mind sometimes and it doesn't make me cringe.) They register to me as these sweet, smart, appealing fellows now, which gives me hope for my relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. 

We have pets already, technically. We have eight fish: a goldfish named  Sheepie, a Black Moor named Blackie, a freakily energetic koi named Sheepiedoggiekittycat, and five cloudfish named Finn, Fred and The Three Peaches. I'm not in love, really, but I have amicable feelings for them, although I'd say Blackie has grounds for a sexual harassment suit against Sheepiedoggiekittycat. 

But something happened recently—just inside me, no incident—where a little door opened up and the idea of a furry being padding around the house all winsome started tugging at me, like a kind of baby fever. I'd look at the empty spot on the floor next to me and imagine some little pooch wandering up and making eyes at me, and I felt love already in advance for this nobody-somebody. That's faded a bit, but it's still kind of amazing to me that it opened at all. And if crows are my buddies now, all bets may be off. 

I have to say I get nervous at the idea of really opening up to an animal. I'm nervous about being needed. I'm nervous about letting somebody down. I'm even nervous about letting love flow between us—particularly being on the receiving end of that pure, crazy, innocent animal love. It's coming close to nature and god and wildness in an unnerving way. 

But I think of a moment soon after Finn was born, and it feels like it relates. We'd been home from the hospital for about a week. I'd had a c-section, and my recovery was tough. I couldn't lift Finn yet, so Dave was taking care of him in a lot of the real physical ways. I handled feedings, but Dave changed him and burped him and walked him around, comforting him. So Finn connected with Dave first, making and holding eye contact, while he still looked right past me. I was exhausted and jealous and suffering intensely about it. But one night, when he was all swaddled up like a samurai in my arms, it happened. He looked at me, and held my gaze. 

Here was this tiny being, alive, all mystery, no words, and we fell into a hole together, looking and looking. My mind stopped making words, too. There weren't any for this. We were there together, and I can't say more about what transpired, exactly, but it was fearsome and majestic and all I could ever ask for. 

I don't want to connect this in any more words. I don't want to make my point. You make it, quietly. The animals are on to something. We don't need all these words. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


At the very beginning of my freshman year of high school, Joanna Christianson invited me to a weeknight pool party at her house. Everybody who was starting high school with any social credibility was going to be there. I played it cool, but I was gaga to have made the list. I'd been popular for exactly one semester and one summer so far, and the thrill hadn't even come close to wearing off. Phil Haven was going to be there, John Barcher, Linnae Dengah*, everybody. Well, not everybody—that was the point. Just the right people, of which I was now, for reasons I couldn't 100% figure out, one. 

*I've changed everyone's names up there except Linnae Dengah because I can't make up a name as good as that. I tried. So, if you're googling yourself, Linnae: surprise

Popularity was gold, it was security, it was everything good. Why had it decided to visit itself upon me? And how could I make it stay? Because I wanted to make it stay at all costs, and I do mean virtually all costs, barring obviously insane things like murder. But whoever I really was inside, if she/that was any impediment to my staying popular, fuck it. Fuck her. Who needs her? Never heard of her. And so, consciously or unconsciously, I set about a lifelong self-curating process that I've only in the last few years begun to try and put the brakes on. But that pool party invite shone in my pocket, and with it all the promise of...something. 


What is it? What's the heroin, the MSG, the irresistible thing at the heart of popularity? If I've thrown my purest self away all these years chasing after it, what's its glamour?  All these unconscious things work better when they're allowed to keep sneaking around in the dark, and if I do have some kind of essential self I've smothered in its name, I want to meet as much of her as I can before I die. So I want to know what I was getting out of this pursuit. I want shine a flashlight on this god I was—had been—am still?—oh, shit—worshipping. Because let's face it, I'm probably not done unwinding this. It's too potent. 

What's the payoff? What's the high? What was worth selling myself out for? 

Looking back at the places and times where I knew I was in possession—at the parties and in the living rooms, at the kegs at the beach, getting the nod at the music shows and in the hallways, huddled by the lockers and gossiping at the sleepovers—I remember a feeling of plushness, of luxury. I felt like I was consuming luxury goods, or that I myself had become luxury goods. Pre-drinking (so before the age of thirteen) the feeling of popularity was bright and vibrating, flashing back and forth between security and fear, since this was all new and I couldn't trust it. But drinking soon became part of it, and then other substances, so it gets harder to separate what it felt like to be popular from what it felt like to be drunk or high, that lush, muffled hedonism.

I think the fundamental pleasure was a pleasure of covering up. There's a certain pleasure in being exposed, of becoming more naked, but then there's the pleasure of blankets, of armor. It's a relief and relaxation that comes from knowing you're protected. And then there's a sort of group white noise that protects you from your own quiet, your own depths. It's comforting, like going to sleep with the television on.


For my thirteenth birthday, my Great-Uncle Harry gave me a handwritten note on yellow legal paper. (I found it a few months ago, after all these years, but it's gone missing again. I'm frustrated because I wanted to quote it here. House! Stop eating my things!) 

I have to tell you a little bit about Harry. He was my grandmother Dora's younger brother, and though Granny scared me plenty, Harry scared me more. He had tan, leathery skin, a hawk nose, a wild white shock of hair that came nearly to his shoulders, the thickest and ugliest Dutch accent you could ever unscramble, and he smelled constantly of tea tree oil. I could not deal. Well, I could have dealt if he'd been a sweet old uncle, but Harry, like Dora, was gruff stuff. He was a chiropractor (name drop coming, sorry, but it's too weird and good—he was Martin Sheen's chiropractor!) and he practiced homeopathy, and most unnervingly of all, he was clairvoyant, like Granny. And he had no time for whatever he deemed bullshit. Like, for example, all of music except for Beethoven. And thirteen-year-old girls who didn't care about their inner lives at all, but only cared about being popular. Also on his bullshit list.

Harry and his wife Mari were staying with us right around my birthday. One afternoon, my brother and Uncle Harry and I were sitting around the dining room table, and the conversation turned to chakras. Harry was talking to us about the crown chakra, the one that hovers a few inches over the top of the head. He was saying that this is the chakra that connects us to the greater whole, to the universe/Divine and to the rest of humanity. If this one is open, your spiritual development is pretty well under way, and if it's not...well, it's not. And then he walked behind my chair and held his hand a few inches over my head, testing, and then grunted and walked back to his chair and sat down. He didn't look too impressed. 

I burned with the dismissal. I felt self-conscious about the sparkly pink lipstick I was wearing, and how shallow he must have thought I was to be wearing it. I was only partially human, it felt like, something for the reject pile. "This one's no good. Toss it."

When my birthday came, he gave me that note. Now we're fucked because I can't find it, but it was written out like a small poem, and the gist was that if you only pay attention to externals, and miss listening to your internal voice, your internal music, you're lost. 

I didn't like my present at all.


What makes a person become popular? Good looks will take you pretty far, but they won't take you all the way if some other things aren't in place. But there's a baseline of reasonable physical attractiveness, some minimum that has to be met to get in the door. And then there seems to be something like a personal Teflon coating that's another prerequisite, a kind of shell off of which things can roll. You can't be too obviously vulnerable. And if you're the reactive type, you better default to something like belligerence. If your Teflon coating cracks, you need to be able to repel attacks/insults/tests. If you're not sufficiently invulnerable, you have to be able to intimidate. 

You also have to be able to monitor and minimize your faux-pas, which means you need to be attuned to social rules. And you may need to roll with some kind of necessary blandness, keep something like negative space available so people can project cool stories/acceptable roles on to you without the interruption of too much contradictory quirk. The presence of a few markers—good looks, a kind of toughness, maybe some humor, the right clothes—and the absence of particular problems (too much vulnerability or the wrong idiosyncrasies/physical flaws/pants) and then a shape starts to show. 

When you've presented the right dots to be connected—without showing your wrong dots—then people can take over and finish out the sketch of you so that it's a success. You're not complete, see, until you've been rubber-stamped. (God forbid you imagine you were born complete, or that you've remained somehow independently complete. Bzzt!) Some kind folks who have their self-presentation all worked out might throw you some advice so you can get ship-shape quicker. And once you've got the hang of it and the invitations start rolling in, keeping up your presentation is addictive, like messing around with Instagram filters. You don't have to accept yourself exactly as you are, or present yourself exactly as you are. Work those dials. 


My friend Kris, who'd been my closest pre-popularity friend in junior high, whom I dumped for the popular kids after an arm-punching incident (I got mad about something and punched her as hard as I could in the arm, she laughed and said I punched like a kitten, and boom. Didn't talk to her for three years), was into something called Rugged Individualism. I was like, what even is that? That's not a thing you can be! That's not on the menu! But she didn't see it like that, and a Rugged Individualist she was. I remember one day during freshman year when she wore jeans and a denim shirt, both of which were embroidered all up and down with bees and ladybugs and sunflowers and god knows what, all of which was so far outside the current pale that I could barely believe my eyes. On the outside I scoffed, but I secretly admired her balls. You had to be rugged as fuck to rock ladybugs on your clothes in high school. I totally punched like a kitten in that regard.


Once, in college, a friend from high school visited me for a weekend. This was during my junior year, when I'd dropped out of my sorority because I'd decided it was cooler not to be in one. I wore black all the time and had taken up smoking, and I fancied myself a cool, alternative type. I had a cool, alternative boyfriend who was in a band and everything. I had it going on, I thought. And my friend, who was going to a state school and getting a communications degree, was still wearing all pink like she did in high school, and she was bright and sunny and ditzy like she was (and was popular for) in high school, and I thought that was all wrong. I was embarrassed by her. This wasn't what to do now. You had to be darker now, and different, to be cool. I couldn't wait for her to leave. Oh, I was growing up so well. Boy, did I adapt. 


Curate yourself long enough and intensely enough and you not only won't know how to stop, but you eventually won't even know you're doing it any more. When I was 31, back when I was an actor, I signed up for a nine-month-long acting intensive at a studio here in Seattle. This was a Meisner class, and any theatre folks reading this will know right away what that signifies. Sanford Meisner was a legendary acting teacher whose technique was based on wringing emotional truth out of you come hell or high water, and my teacher, Robin Lynn Smith, was Seattle's finest conduit for the technique. 

The class was grueling and golden and revelatory. I only lasted three months. 

During the first stretch of this Meisner training, we did a lot of what they call repetition exercises, where you sit across from a partner and, using only the simplest observations of each other (and the repetitions of those observations) as dialogue, you take in what you see across from you, call it out as truthfully as you can, and then react to each other from the gut. It sounds simple, and it should be, but it isn't. It's as loaded and complicated as the conditioning you walk in the door with, which in my case was way more loaded and complicated than I had any idea. 

I'd be in a repetition with my partner in front of the class, and I'd think I was just being straightforward, and Robin would yell, "Stop it! Tina, stop that!" I'd get confused and flustered, and keep going, not knowing what to stop, and Robin would yell, "Tina! Stop being nice!" And I was like STOP YELLING AT ME I'M NOT BEING NICE I CAN'T FEEL THAT I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT I'M JUST BEING ME.  

I was trapped inside something and I couldn't even see it. I'd built an expedient container for myself, one that brought me friends and didn't make trouble, and I couldn't figure out where it was, much less how to get out. The repetition exercises were fraught and usually ended up getting heated, too, like you were constantly having fights with your closest friends. The more honest I was, the scarier and more exhausting it got. 

One rainy afternoon at my house, I was doing repetition with my partner, a handsome, gentle, slightly awkward athlete named Tim, and the exercise took an unexpected turn. I can't for the life of me tell you exactly what we were observing in each other, but the risks we took in expressing what we saw landed us—just for that afternoon, and totally innocently—in love. Not lust, but love, a romantic love, something pure and courtly. Tons of clothing came off, it felt like, but no fabric. It was shocking and a little nerve-wracking to get my guarded social being out of the way and allow it to happen, but damned if it didn't show the payoff for revealing myself. I'd never passed an hour like it. 

After I dropped out of the class, I got a little homemade card in the mail from Tim, an index card that he'd collaged on one side with triangles of silver foil art paper. He said he understood why I was dropping out, even if he was disappointed, and that he wouldn't forget the hour we'd spent in my house, that he felt that what we'd shared there had been real. I loved the card, and I agreed. In a lifetime of posturing and hiding and positioning, that clear, pure hour rang out, something to keep as a talisman and a possibility. 


On the way to Joanna's pool party, riding in the back of my mom's car, my friend Tanya and I gasped and giggled and talked in code about who was going to be there, and what music we were going to hear, which cool songs, and we loved that my mom wouldn't be able to figure out what we were talking about. Why should she? She was a mom, not a person. Only our people needed to know.  

When we got to Joanna's, everyone was there, as promised. The boys threw themselves sideways into the pool over and over, the girls stood around the pool and watched the boys, Joanna's parents wandered around making distracted chit-chat and keeping an eye out, and nothing interesting happened. Not one thing. No good conversation, nothing. The most super-popular people were all smiling and laughing and seemed to be having fun, but all my excitement evaporated, replaced by surprising dispassion. I was bored, which amazed me. I didn't actually like a lot of these people. I didn't resonate with them. We weren't really anything to each other. I'd had more fun at Kris's house the year before, listening to Black Sabbath and making prank phone calls. The only thing this party had going for it was brand-name personnel, the A-list, which was what I wanted, which was nothing. But the herd was here, the comfort of the herd. I didn't need to like each of them, did I? I didn't want to stop wanting what I wanted, this popularity, but it didn't have anything in it, not in and of itself. 

I enjoyed this observation about as much as I enjoyed Uncle Harry's birthday note, and ignored it just as hard. 

When I did find Harry's note a few months ago, I felt a pang—not of insult this time, but something else. I read it over, and I got it. It wasn't that he didn't like me, or that he thought I was bullshit. He was worried about me. He wanted me to participate in actual life, the real thing, as myself, and not a facsimile. I got it in an instant. I misjudged him (even that fucking tea tree oil, which stinks, but is terrifically antiseptic). He didn't want me going through life juggling two versions of myself, the ideal one for public consumption and the worst one, to be frantically hidden away. He just wanted me to know myself, and steer by something real. 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014


Here's what: I'm driving down the street...let's call it yesterday. I've got the windows down, and the new mixed CD I just made for the car is playing. The sun is out, it's hot but not too hot, the fan is on, and I don't have any immediate problems. There is no crisis on deck. I'm healthy, my family's good, everybody's hanging in. I'm not in a quarrel with anybody, I don't have any major aches or pains. I'm just out to buy some shoes. I love buying shoes. 

By all rights, this should be a golden moment. But we just had a party the day before, and my brain has decided to fuck with this lovely afternoon. I try not to do it, but I keep projecting myself into my guests' brains, planting judgments I think they might have had about our house, my hostessing, the music, the food, etc. My brain throws out stupid questions every two minutes: did _______ think my house was the wrong size? Did __________ like/hate the music? Did ___________ come out of obligation? I wave the questions off like flies over and over. I don't know! Who cares? God, shut up! But the constant re-arrival of the questions and the sour feeling that comes with each one hexes the drive. 

Self-consciousness is jive and it ruins everything it touches. I'm talking about that pinching little presence that whispers to you that you're wrong somehow, fundamentally, in your very being. That if you're not currently embarrassed, you should be, and if you're not feeling insecure, you're missing something. Vigilance, dread, all related to who you are. The threat is from within. The call is coming from inside the house. 

It does, it ruins everything. Self-consciousness mars performances and auditions and interviews and dates, it sucks all the sex out of sex, and it's hell at school. I remember being the new girl at my junior high, jumping in at 8th grade when everybody already knew each other, and the miasma of self-consciousness I waded through from dawn to dusk. I wore white pants one day in September, and I remember sitting near the front of my history class in a state of terror that my period would arrive and bloom red between my legs, my ears attuned to all the small sounds of my classmates. Was that a snicker? Is it happening? Has the blood crept up to my back pockets? And then my bra suddenly unhooked itself in the back and my hand shot up so I could be excused to go to the bathroom. I ran and dove into a stall, fixed my bra and then shoved my pants down to confront my sea of blood, which of course wasn't there. Everything was pristine. I stayed in the bathroom as long as I could, putting off my return to the battlefield.  


An acquaintance of mine wrote a piece for The Stranger recently about a brutal strain of bodily self-consciousness that strikes him every summer, which I imagine at least half of the reading public recognizes themselves in. As a woman with "imperfections"—God, so dumb. We're the only animals that do this shit to ourselves. -That doe has fat thighs. -You call that a bikini body, squirrel? -Fuck that giraffe! He thinks he's such a bigshot! -Yeah, he's successful, but he's going a little soft in the haunch, if you know what I mean—I'm familiar with this feeling to the point of boredom. I can't keep caring about my arms/ass/knees/whatever. It's too hot and summer is too long. Also I'm old and married and not trying to pick up dudes, which is freeing. Dave already signed the papers. But the essential horror at the center of his piece—we all carry it, or something like it, whether we just got a lucky kernel or we're dragging around mounds of it. And I'm tired of this shit. I'm mad at it, on all our behalves. 


I used to collect books about the French. It was a favorite genre of mine, How to Understand/Be Like the French. I have historically been a little obsessed with French people—Parisians in particular—because they have a reputation for being tough to crack, which is catnip to my self-conscious, people-pleasing side. They're like a Rubik's Cube that I was dying to solve. If I can learn to work the French, was my thinking, then I can work anyone. (An old college boyfriend once said he thought I was a little Machiavellian, and I was genuinely like WHAT IS THIS DUDE TALKING ABOUT, but in retrospect I think he was probably on to something.) Anyway, I'm a very smiley, ingratiating person. Annoying or not, that's my autopilot. And in Paris they hate that. They hate it when strangers smile at them; they think it's stupid, unearned, a little crazy, even. Now, my smiling seems pretty innocent to me. I think, let's be temporary sidewalk friends! Why not?  But when I unpack it, I think there's a little bit of "If a bomb falls on us all right now, the people I've smiled at will be my allies in the rubble and will be less likely to eat me when we run out of food." The Parisians aren't buying it. So in one book they said if you're a foreigner in Paris and you get invited, by miracle, to a dinner party, and it's your first time among that group of people (and possibly second or third), expect/plan to be a chair. Nobody is going to talk to you or care about you or engage with you, so pretend to be a chair and make peace with being furniture for the night. Don't take it personally. Just be invisible and pointless and suck it up. This is a self-consciousness exercise that makes my brain explode to contemplate. The worst! But also, and because of that, so fascinating! Probably medicinal as well. And it gets me thinking, where else might this be applicable? Anywhere? Everywhere? Why do we need to be taken in in a certain way all the time? Why do we need to—or even believe we can—control it? Be a chair! Who cares? 


I flew to California with my brother a couple of years ago to take a class with him and give him a hand while he traveled, as he's disabled. He's been dealt a rough one in this life, bearing up under loads of physical and psychological pain. And he's also an amazing being, unlike anybody else I've ever met. David is brilliant and always, always, uncompromisingly himself. He has never trimmed or tailored his personality to his surroundings like I have. He doesn't do the opposite thing, either, where you get aggressively individualistic in that kind of defensive way. He just does him, as they say, and he always has, ever since we were kids. Anyway, we were at the airport, and he had his big walking stick with him, with the silver cobra head and ruby eyes. It's a not-fucking-around walking stick that can conceal a sword. It's crackers. (The sword was not traveling with us, naturally.) He also had heavy crystal necklaces around his neck in bunches, along with a bag around his neck with a big, rose quartz crystal ball inside. We're going through security and he's unloading all his stuff, emptying his pockets (equally packed with talismans and dealie-bobbers of all kinds), taking his crystal ball out of the bag, explaining to the security personnel what everything was, all with this perfect, pure, absolute lack of self-consciousness. Total innocence. I watched him with a kind of cringing joy, like, hey! You can't have fifty thousand items at security—especially fifty thousand super magical items! This is adorable and a little embarrassing! But then there he went, and he was so damn pure and sweet, and turns out, why couldn't he? You can! You can. You can bring a crystal ball and a wizard walking stick and eleventy billion doodads through the airport and nobody dies. On the contrary, everyone fell in love with him, as people do wherever he goes. My admiration for him—which was already a pretty unwieldy Macy's-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-style-balloon-type-deal—soared. What I wouldn't give for that particular kind of unselfconsciousness! 


When Dave and I were on our honeymoon in Hawaii nine years ago, I lay on the bed one morning and practiced disappearing. It's a fond memory. I was wearing this diaphanous white cotton nightgown that a friend of the family had given me as a shower present, which felt like nothing on my skin, it was so light. I was gazing up at the ceiling fan, feeling so good. There was a total absence of bummers. Our relationship was blissful, the temperature was perfect and balmy, there was nowhere to be. And it popped into my head to try disappearing, as an experiment. Not in a David Copperfield way, but in a Buddhist, is-the-self-illusory?-then-let's-see-it-go kind of way. Nowhere to be? How about also nobody to be? Let's try it. I didn't intend it to be any kind of meditation, either. I was just curious. I wanted to see what would happen if I let go of my affiliation with my history, my memories, my understanding of myself. What would it feel like? Would it feel as good as this nightgown? Would it feel like taking off a nightgown? It felt interesting and good for the drips and drops I could sustain it for, whatever I was doing or stopping doing. And when I look back now, I know that hell yes, that was meditation. On the money.


That experiment begged the question: does a me always need to be present? Does it need to be so up-front-and center all the time, driving everything? I'm really intrigued by this concept of the self as an illusory thing. (Those Buddhists are always throwing something interesting out there.) The self is, what, a trick of the light? A giant practical joke? As a someone who's frequently experienced the self as a burden, I'm all tell me more. I'm part-horrified, part-fascinated by the idea that this me, this central locus of consciousness, is flimsy or fake, that I can participate in existence without it, even though something might die off in the process. 

Because there are two different levels of self-consciousness I'm talking about here. There's painful consciousness of the self, and then there's just plain old consciousness of the presence of the self, an "I" taking it all in. This big display all around us — how often do I take it in without folding a me into it, a me with opinions and memories and fantasies? Like, for example,  say I'm driving around again, and there's a song on. At the very least there's an "I like this," or "I don't like this." And I like or don't like the weather, I'm rating it, and if it's a song I love, then it's me singing it, I fantasize that it's me. I wrestle me in there everywhere. Can't I be a chair in my own car for a second, and let music just be music, let the weather just be the weather? Do I have to insert myself all the time? 

And so what if my party and I aren't perfect? What if the worst were true, and everybody thought every bad thought I assigned them? So what? It's still a little revolutionary to me, the idea that what other people think of me is irrelevant, that my self-consciousness isn't preempting anything, isn't saving me from anything. Maybe my house is offensive! Maybe my music is objectively, scientifically bad! Maybe who cares! I get a thrill from this, which indicates hope. 

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

cherchez la femme

Tomorrow's my birthday. I'll be turning 45, which feels surreal, but I've been tooling around my forties long enough to buy it, I guess. I think it's true. 1969. The number's right. It all adds up. I'm middle-aged, no fighting it. And that's cool. It's a little improbable-feeling, but word on the street is that these birthdays keep feeling improbable until the grave, so I'm not alone, at least. 

My genes—those bringers of mixed blessings—hooked me up with a young face, which is nice now, but might possibly have stunted my maturity a little, since it's hard to feel all grown up when the people of the world have been pinching your cheeks since time began. In my first year of college, in fact, when I joined a sorority (Kappa Alpha Theta, whose...what do we want to call it, 'motto'—?—is "Theta for a Lifetime", though I ultimately went with the lesser-traveled "Theta for Two Years"), we had an awards night for our pledge class, where every young lady was honored for some notable personal quality. I was excited as the recognition made its way around the room. What fun thing were they going to honor me for? Girls were getting props for their athleticism, their toughness, their boy-craziness. Would it be my sense of humor? My fashion sense? My indomitable spirit? I couldn't wait to find out. And then it was finally my turn, and my pledge mom, Jennifer, stood up and lifted up a big, pale yellow placard emblazoned with the word "Youthfulness" in girly script, with some stupid fucking poem about youthfulness or whatever copied by hand beneath it, and everybody beamed at me while she said stupid things about how young and fresh I was, and I forced a smile instead of jumping up and yelling, "YOUTHFULNESS?? WHAT THE FUCK??" and kicking over a table like I wanted to.

Fucking let a woman be a woman, even if she isn't one yet, was my feeling. I was seventeen and the most virginal virgin ever. At a function that year with my favorite fraternity—Delta Tau Delta—where we all wore white t-shirts and got wasted and drew on each other with Sharpies, the same basic thing happened. The hottest senior Delt, upon whom I had a huge crush, stopped and wrote on my shirt, smiling. I made my way to the bathroom and twisted the shirt around so I could see what he wrote. It was the letter "V". Just a big V. It even took me a minute. V? What do you mean, V? V? And then it dawned on me. Goddamn it. 

All I wanted was to be a woman, from as early on as I figured out that girls became women. (Not hip to transgender issues as a tot.) I was like, let's get this show on the road, then. Let's move it. Mostly I wanted breasts. I stuffed my shirt with tissues when no one was looking, until I saw Half-Pint try it with apples on an episode of Little House on the Prairie, which looked promising. (Tip: nope.) In first grade, sitting at my little table of four people, I was possessed with the idea to fold my turtleneck over in a flap at the chest area and rig a proto-rack for myself. I was pleased with the results until some slobbery, total non-player at my table ogled my flap and I shut the operation down, chagrined.

What was a woman? How did you do it, besides with boobs? The women around me made their impressions, and I took subconscious notes. 

First, always, is Mom. We like our women beautiful, culturally, and I'd heard the news. My mom was beautiful, I was happy to see. And she knew she was beautiful, and I knew she knew it, because she told me how often she'd been told it in her life, which was often enough that she said it took her a while to figure out that it wasn't enough just to look good. She thought for a long time that this was her contribution, that she could just bring her face into a room and then chill, mission accomplished. Good deed done. 

I loved watching my mom get ready to go out on the town with my dad. Sometimes they'd head into New York City to see a play, sometimes they'd go square dancing. (Square dancing! I don't know why but it kind of kills me. My mom had/has a very swish, Eva-Gabor sort of European accent—she's from Finland—pronounces "darling" as "dah-ling", that kind of thing—and so the incongruity of square dancing as a hobby with her fancy lady voice gives me Green Acres feelings.) She'd put on a pretty dress, usually in some silky brown fabric of the 70s, and some Revlon lipstick, which was the only makeup she wore or needed. High heels. Pearls. I was in love. 

But home was her real domain, and domesticity was Aino's jam. Everything in our house was clean and fresh and pressed, and she cooked squishy, yummy food: cheese soufflé, Baked Alaska, potatoes in Bechamel sauce, Finnish crepes rolled up with brown sugar, waffles on weekends. And if we were entertaining, especially if we had some kind of VIP coming over, she got a real glint in her eye, something almost cocky. This was her sport. Nobody was too posh for her to impress. She presided over her end of the table in smug calm while our guests ooh'd and ah'd over their plates. 

As much of a charge as she got from entertaining, Aino came even more alive in the garden. She kept her pearls on but she knelt in the dirt and tugged and toiled all day, beaming at us from underneath her sun hat. Hard work, sunshine, nature: this was hers, only for her. Not for guests, not for her family, just a pure date my mom went on with her own life force. I saw how she came inside different after a day in the garden, dirty and tired and happy and real. Her voice sounded right. It didn't have a spin in it, or the sound of trying. 

And there was her mothering, of course. She said over and over to me and my brother that she'd wanted kids with a blind urge, and that she recommended that nobody have kids who isn't dazzled with the need for them like she was. She loved the job. She wanted the job, she loved the job, and she was built for it, especially the early childhood part, which is so endlessly physical. Clean this, feed that, change that, boom. I don't know how she did it, but she was ten steps ahead of all of that stuff. Seamless. It's obnoxious how seamless that was, I say now from experience. WTF, Aino? Nice bar to set. I'm not clearing it, by the way. I could stroll straight under it wearing a top hat.

She loved her children, too, which doesn't go without saying in our lineage. (Granny, you're up in a moment.) She was tender and devoted and cuddly, and always talked to us in a soft, sweet voice, even if it wasn't her post-garden voice. There were hugs, there was bedtime singing, and above all there was her gaze, which told us she was always happy to see us, which was no lie, no spin. 

That gaze is the biggest thing, I can feel it. Ground Zero, the central sun of my conception of womanhood. Care and attention. I can see you. That's what a woman is, someone who can see you. Someone who stops to see you, who helps you know you exist. 

And then there was Granny—read up here if you need to—whose gender seemed somehow beside the point. It wasn't on the table. She was the most powerful person in whatever room she was in. I don't know if that was true when my grandfather was alive, since he checked out before I could check that out, but it was unswervingly true afterward. I never once saw her defer to another living person. She had none of the softness that I associate with womanhood, and she didn't seem particularly allied with her gender, though she had female friends. (There was no sisterhood thing going on for either her or my mom, for that matter. Feminism was loud and shocking to Aino, and didn't draw any particular comment I can remember from Dora, whose force of personality made feminism seem almost unnecessary for her. And there sure the hell wasn't any sisterhood going on between the two of them.) 

We weren't close, Granny and I, so while she's burned into my consciousness, she didn't become one of my chosen female icons. My mental walls are not lovingly postered with her image. But I know she's deep in my mix, such was her power and her proximity for so long. Inspiration, cautionary tale, I don't know. Something to grow into, something to avoid becoming. I'm still unwinding her influence. No verdict yet, or maybe ever. 

Then there were the female friends of the family who flew or drifted in for visits. Goddesses. They were close enough to bring love with them—that gaze—but they were distant enough and were with us in short enough bursts that there was no time or space to calculate their flaws. So they didn't have any. Case closed.

There was Renée, a philosophy professor with big, beautiful, deep brown owl eyes who sat with us in front of the fire one New Year's Eve, leading me and my brother in Socratic dialogue about Plato's allegory of the cave. I was hypnotized. She was so respectful towards us, towards the power of our minds, and her cashmere sweater was so soft, and her voice was like coffee and honey. She spoke French to us with that voice sometimes—she had a little Jeanne Moreau about her—and I died of it. She was Peak Femininity. 

And there was Emily, my mom's friend, the daughter of her Spanish professor in college, who was a world traveler and operator in high political/diplomatic circles. She had a soft, posh voice like Renee's, and sat on our couch with a ballerina's posture, legs crossed just so. Emily was fearsomely correct. But she loved us. She was crazy about my mom and so she loved the rest of us by extension, and not by default, either. Really really. So her correctness and refinement wasn't a threat; it felt more like an asset, even. She was one of ours, and she knew so much about the world, and she gave advice that felt, because of her palpable love for us, conspiratorial instead of corrective. She gave you her full attention, asked you lots of questions, and then bubbled over with ideas for how you, with your specific gifts and talents, could basically take over the world. It was hot stuff, and you felt like you could photosynthesize her charisma and savoir-faire if you sat with her long enough. She was better than a movie star. 

Then there were the walk-ons: an older Australian woman named Elizabeth, for example, whom we sometimes saw at Indralaya, with a slender figure and long white hair. She was old, chronologically, but her hair and the wrinkles on her face were the only tells. In every other respect she would have taken that Youthfulness award in a heartbeat. I remember an afternoon when she and I walked around the camp collecting pebbles, and then we retired to her A-frame to turn them into mice with black markers, which was bliss. The mice were charming but the time and attention she lavished on me were the real goods. 

And there was Hilda, an elderly Scottish lady at Indralaya who used to hold my face and exclaim, "You look just like a Victorian cameo!"—"There she is, my Victorian cameo!"—which was so unnecessary/sweet, and made me feel like ten million bucks. To this day, I do like Hilda did and don't hold back with the compliments. They cost nothing and I'm a menace with them, trying to pay it forward, assaulting mostly elderly women at the grocery store with "What a beautiful scarf!" and "The color of that sweater is so luminous!" on the off chance I can give them that same thrill of being seen and appreciated that Hilda gave me.

There were the glamour girl walk-ons, too, but I'm less inspired to talk about them now. I'll just give a quick shout-out to Charlie's Angels and my friend Amy's mom, who was an Avon lady, whippet-thin and sexy-chic, with long dark hair and long burgundy nails. She was the only real lady I knew who could have been a Charlie's Angel, though she was always harried and grumpy in a way the Angels weren't. Quick personality/schedule overhaul and she would have been there. 

It's only recently that I learned that the phrase "cherchez la femme" doesn't just mean something along the lines of "Hey, women are cool/sexy, so track 'em down!" like I thought it did. I found out that the phrase, which originated with an Alexandre Dumas novel called The Mohicans of Paris, evolved to mean something like "If a man committed a crime, find out who the broad was who drove him to it, because let me tell you, IT WAS A BROAD." This blew my mind. Also: sigh. It was better the other way. I'm reclaiming it, though, right here, right now. I'm supplying my own meaning. I'm keeping the "go to the source" part, and erasing the "of the trouble" part. We give life, after all. You come from us. You come from Dad, too, but let's be real. We're the door. You want to know who you are? You know what to do. 

P.S. I always thought I would have a daughter, but no. Two sons came. (I wouldn't, obviously, have it any other way.) I really wanted to shepherd a little girl into womanhood, and then I remembered, oh. What else have I been doing all my life? Right.