Away-not-Away

Writing this post is slow going because I have to keep stopping and responding to Facebook Messenger messages from Bill. It’s just noon here, but he’s sitting at an outdoor table having a light dinner because he’s in Ireland, where it’s 8 pm. Why Bill is in Ireland without me is something I’ll explain in some future post. What’s interesting about this trip is how not-away he seems to be. People ask me if I miss him, and I do. But not as much as you  might think, since we’ve spent an hour video chatting every afternoon (my time, bedtime his time) since he left. Plus text chatting throughout the day, or at least the part of the day that we’re both awake. Plus a running supply of photos and videos. I’ve seen the table where he’s having dinner, the gorgeous view from the table in two directions and the dinner itself.

For a long time, I’d been slightly jealous of the Big Bang Theory characters for the way they use video chat like a normal part of everyday life. I’d tried it a few times but usually found it too glitchy, low-quality, and difficult to use to be really useful. Even when I was in Costa Rica on a yoga retreat and had to talk to Bill by internet chat, I used audio chat because it seemed to work better. And holding my phone to my ear made it seem more intimate.

But time, and bandwidth, marched on. These days, a meaningful portion of the “conference call” invitations I get are carried out over Skype or Zoom or some other venue that allows both audio and video chat. I haven’t fully figured out the etiquette of one versus the other. Once, when I was interviewing an expert in The Netherlands over Skype–I thought just to save on long-distance–he complained when he couldn’t see me. I explained that he’d have to watch me typing, taking notes–I wouldn’t be able to make much eye contact–but he insisted so I switched to video chat. Another time, an Inc.com colleague asked for a meeting with me and suggested Zoom so she could record it. This time I clicked on video chat from the start, and found myself face to face with an elegantly dressed and made-up woman wearing a nice necklace whereas I was wearing a hoodie.

Back to Bill. He’ll be home soon after two weeks “away,” but the quality of that away-ness is different fom past times apart because I see him and hear him and talk things out with him every day. Young people these days don’t seem to care that much where their friends and even their girlfriends or boyfriends physically are. They maintain friendships and romantic relationships over great geographical distances, and I’m beginning to see how that just might be possible. On the other hand, I still need him here to snuggle up with and bring me coffee and make distracting noise while I’m trying to work, and to have dinner with while debating the Hugh Hefner documentary we’ve been watching. All the things, large and small, that make up being married and that you just can’t get from video chat.

At one point while he was away, Bill sent me a chat message that said he wished they’d perfected transporter technology so that I could magically appear by his side for just one night of pub-crawling and live music. (Not to mention avoid the many, many hours in planes and airports it would take for him to get home.) Meantime, he did the next best thing and held his phone up so I could see the musicians and hear the music.  It wasn’t anything like being there. But it was still a lot of fun.

Image: Bill’s dinner in Ireland

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Jai Hanuman!

meandmyharmonium3

One thing Bill and I love to do together is kirtan. Kirtan, if you’ve never encountered it, is a little hard to describe, but it’s essentially a musical version of yoga. Not the bendy, strengthening part of yoga, but the meditative, mentally calming, spiritual part. A chant leader sings a line in Sanskrit, and the participants sing it back. It’s an incredibly relaxing, invigorating form of singing meditation.

It’s also music, and often beautiful music. Like many things Hindu, it was brought back to America in the 60s by people like Ram Dass and like many things World Music, became fused with American rock and pop over the decades. Krishna Das, a former rock musician, studied in India and brought kirtan home to America. He became the closest thing we have here to a kirtan rock star, performing at the Grammies a few years back.

So anyhow, that’s kirtan and it was very much a thing in Woodstock. Our next door neighbor whose Hindu name is Sruti Ram led kirtan for years first in his living room, then at various venues around town. Bill first got drawn into it by another local kirtan leader. When a guitarist who was supposed to accompany her cancelled, she asked Bill to fill in. He started learning about kirtan. He was hooked and soon turned into a kirtan wallah in his own right.

Here in Snohomish, he’s led kirtan at a couple of local yoga studios, as well as in an inflatable dome on Whidbey Island. Most of the time I serve as his backup singer. In kirtan, a backup singer is barely heard above the crowd, but it’s your job to lead everyone else along.

One recent evening eating a late dinner out after a kirtan session, Bill gave me some notes about having jumped in and started singing without waiting for his signal to do so. He was right, of course–backup singers shouldn’t take the initiative, at least not in kirtan, where everyone has to carefully follow the leader. Still, I was feeling petulant.

“Sometimes it seems that you want everyone in the world to have a voice except me,” I pouted.

“I’ve been thinking maybe you should lead a chant of your own,” he said.

That was a surprise. Over the past year or so I’ve been slowly coming out of my shell as a singer, jumping in informally on harmonies at the Hungry Pelican and at parties, although I only once actually “got on the mic”–because I was pushed. But I’ve been getting closer to doing it on purpose. From that to leading a kirtan chant would be a big jump.

Except for two things. First, we’d been leading kirtan at our friend Monika’s yoga studio which is a relatively small space and hasn’t had huge crowds for our kirtans, or any crowd sometimes, so the whole idea was less intimidating than it would be in a bigger venue.

The other thing was was Baba Hanuman. It’s a beautiful chant by Krishna Das, written for his guru Neem Karoli Baba, whom he loved beyond measure. Whatever the reason, hearing that chant almost always makes me cry. I’ve always wanted Bill to do it but he never has shown any interest so when he suggested I might lead a chant, I answered without even thinking about it: “Yes! I would like to lead Baba Hanuman.”

And then I backtracked, wondering if I’d inadvertently hurt his feelings. “That is…unless you want me to do one of your chants?” But no, he said, he might write a new chant for me but he didn’t expect me to do any of his.

Over the next few weeks, I first learned the words to Baba Hanuman (which has quite a bit of Sanskrit in it), then began nagging Bill to learn it on the guitar. We agreed it made no sense for me to lug my electronic keyboard (a present from Bill from years ago which is languishing in a closet at the moment for lack of space) to the yoga studio for a single chant. Only one problem: When he got around to learning the chant, by ear, as he does everything, I was convinced he had one of the chords wrong. And it’s the chords in Baba Hanuman that drive the emotional power of the chant, or so it seems to me.

We were debating the question one day, and I decided the only way I could really determine if his idea of the chords for Baba Hanuman were right was to try playing them myself. I could, I suppose, have dragged my keyboard out of its place in the closet in my office but instead I decided to see if there was a tablet app that simulated a piano. And of course there was. So I tried playing his idea of the chords on it and, yup, they sounded wrong.

Bill looked up the right chords online (they were there!) but also suggested that I try to find an app that sounded more like a harmonium, since that’s the instrument Krishna Das plays, and that’s the sound that powers that chant. If you’ve never encountered one, a harmonium is an Indian keyboard air-pumped instrument that is usually played while sitting on the floor, with one hand on the keyboard and the other hand pumping the bellows in the back. It looks kind of like a larger, more ornate, musically simpler version of an accordian. Bill has always assumed it was originally created from worn-out or broken accordians discarded by the British when they ruled India, but no. They were once (in a larger form) a popular instrument in the United States, very useful for accompanying at-home hymn singing before they were swept away by the invention of the electric organ in the 1930s. They were taken up in India, though, where electricity is often undependable or unavailable. There too, they seemed to lend themselves best to devotional singing, which in India is kirtan.

Turns out there’s one harmonium app for Android. It’s a bit undependable and clunky, but it does sound just like a harmonium. I turned my tablet as loud as it could go and practiced and practiced on the little images of keys in the harmonium app and pretty soon I could get through the chant just fine, unless the app crashed as it sometimes did. I had never led a chant before but we went over to the yoga studio with my app ready to go. Then we got to chatting about it and I found out that Monika who owns the studio had a harmonium there that she’d gotten as a birthday present but not yet learned to play.

I’d never played one before either, but I knew the keys, I knew the chords, and hers is a fine instrument that is very easy to pump. So I launched right in. Unlike most of what we sing in kirtan, that chant is in a very comfortable key for my voice. I was also leading the chant, and trying to make myelf heard over a harmonium, which is an instrument that pretty much can’t be played at low volume. And Baba Hanuman always gets me. So I threw my heart into it and sang for all I was worth.

Bill and I have a longstanding tradition of exchanging gifts a week or more after Christmas. It began years ago when we lived in Woodstock and the grandchildren were small, and we used to race around to their various homes delivering stacks of presents and home-made goodies to everyone. We tended to give each other stacks of presents as well and it was all a lot of pressure and rush and at some point it dawned on us that we could reduce the pressure by giving each other some extra time for our own gift exchange. I later realized we could also take advantage of day-after-Christmas prices and unwanted gifts sold on eBay this way. In any case, the tradition stuck.

And so, a couple of weeks after Christmas, my present arrived, in  large box, surrounded by a ridiculous amount of packing tape and styrofoam that shed little balls all over the living room carpet. It was a harmonium of my own.

Image: Bill’s picture of me playing my new harmonium, not yet quite awake.

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(Here’s a brief clip of me doing Baba Hanuman on Monika’s harmonium with Bill on guitar.)

 

 

 

 

Whistling While I Work

rockwhistling

There’s a tuneless whistle coming through my office door, even though it’s closed. Not so much tuneless as resolution-less, a meandering melody that wanders up and down, sometimes with triplets or trills or the occasional vibrato. It would be pleasant enough, except the tune never pauses or ends. It’s Bill whistling, of which he’s completely unconscious.

In big box stores with tall shelves, it functions as a homing device. I may not be able to see him in a neighboring aisle, but I can hear him if he’s nearby. Bill is a sufficiently accomplished whistler that he could be hired to perform the whistling parts of television jingles and such like whereas I can barely whistle a single note, and that only by awkwardly inhaling rather than exhaling. So I admire this talent of his and I like his whistling. Most of the time.

Some of the time, like when I’m having trouble working, it distracts and annoys me. Bill has no silent setting. He’s gregarious and always wants to share what he’s thinking or reading or seeing so he tends to talk quite a lot. Sometimes when I want to read, I need to either tell him to cut it out (he does, but I always feel mean saying it) or else move out of the room that he’s in. But all the time, I’d a hundred times rather have a spouse who talks too much than one who doesn’t talk enough and leaves me wondering what he’s thinking.

When he’s asleep, he’s usually snoring. When he’s awake and not talking, he’s most often whistling. I can’t help thinking about the “I Love Lucy” episode where Rock Hudson gets Lucy and Ethel to stop minding Ricky and Fred’s annoying habits with this pathetic story about whistling.

About ten years ago, Bill’s cousin Teddy (a nickname for the unlikely first name of Thaddeus) died of lung cancer. By the time it was discovered it had spread to his brain, so from when he told us about it to when we were standing beside his grave was only about three months, and they were pretty bad months. Bill’s whole family grew up in about a two-block area of Middletown, New York, with Teddy and his family just a few houses away. Bill was the eldest of four and Teddy was a few years older than him, making him Bill’s de facto big brother. Teddy taught Bill to drive and to smoke and took him into a bar for his first drink.

On top of that, Teddy was the first (and so far only) member of Bill’s generation in the family to die, so losing him rattled Bill badly in all kinds of ways. He raged and mourned, gave a eulogy, and along with his cousins took a rotation staying in Teddy’s house so his elderly mother who lived upstairs wouldn’t be there alone. Months passed. Life went on. And Bill, I observed, had stopped whistling.

I realized that Bill whistles when he’s happy, when he’s engaged in his work, when things are humming along nicely. That never-resolving meandering tune is Bill’s way of saying, “All is right in my world.” For months after Teddy’s death, it wasn’t.

Then one day he started whistling again. It was the best sound I’d ever heard.

Image: Rock whistling for Lucy and Ethel. (My husband looks just like this.)

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Death to Blackberries!

In Woodstock a few years ago, a friend who’d grown up in California came to visit and sighed nostalgically over the blackberry bush at the edge of the woods near our driveway. We loved our blackberries there and I would occasionally do battle with surprisingly aggressive ants to pick a bowlful that I might later combine with a heated-up brownie to make an indulgent dessert.

That was there. Here in the PNW (as it’s called) blackberries are everywhere, a menace, a nuisance, and number one on the hit list of invasive species. Like dandelions and blackbirds and a lot of other things spreading out of control, the Himalayan Blackberry was imported from Europe and introduced here on purpose, in this case in 1885 by legendary botanist Luther Burbank, who also brought us elephant garlic. The Himalayan Blackberry was considered an improvement because the fruit grows bigger and sweeter than it does on regular blackberries like we had in the East. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the blackberries proved hardier than every other native or introduced species, birds ate the berries and spread the seeds in their droppings up and down the West Coast and soon they were completely out of control.

They deserve to be poisoned. At least, that’s how the lawn care people we finally gave in and hired to make the property look vaguely civilized see them. “We’ll spray all through here,” one said of the blackberry bushes bordering our neighbors’ yard, as if it was the most routine thing in the world, which I guess it was to him.

“You mean herbicide?” I asked. When he said yes, I vetoed that idea. “Good luck with that,” his partner told us. But I thought we should at least try to maintain our yard without resorting to carcinogens. We knew lots of people who did. I’ve heard that people hire goats to eat the stuff.

I was wary of them, though. Back in Snohomish, a blackberry bush threw one long branch over my compost pile and when I most carefully moved it, a thorn so small you couldn’t see it embedded itself in the palm of my hand and eventually caused a tiny infection. They grow much bigger thorns too–a friend told us he was permanently scarred from a blackberry bush he’d encountered on a hike. Which confirmed my sense that they were something to fear.

But fear them or not, here they were, crawling across from the opposite side of the fence (poison or no) along our property’s east and south borders, throwing tall canes over the top of our lilacs and strangling them. Whether you hate blackberries or love them, one thing you can’t do around here is ignore them.

So. On a recent trip to Lake Forest Park, I found a pair of leather gardening gloves that actually fit my strange, chunky, short-fingered hands. I grabbed the gloves and was ready for battle. On a sunny day I lured Bill outside to help me with the blackberries by cutting down the high canes I couldn’t reach without a stepladder. He got into it with enthusiasm and soon there were piles of blackberry branches along the fence line where he’d cut them down. I used my gloves to drag them around to the front yard and piled them near the burn pit. Then I used my shortness to duck under the other bushes and cut the blackberries all the way back to the fence.

We both kept at it and soon there was an enormous pile of blackberry branches for me to drag to the burn pit. You might have thought we were done but over the next few days as we walked the yard, we kept finding new places where they were encroaching and we pulled them out or cut them back with fervor. Eventually there were half a dozen huge piles of blackberry branches around the yard near the fire pit. After letting them dry for a few days, I started a fire in the fire pit and began dropping them in.

It took two and a half hours to feed them all into the flames. By the end of it my clothes, my hair, and the entire neighborhood smelled of smoke. But looking around the yard it was oddly satisfying. There had been huge piles of blackberry branches and I’d made them disappear literally into thin air.

The next day I found a new place where blackberry branches were making their way into our yard. I cut them down. And started a new pile.

Image: oatsy40 via Creative Commons

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At Long Last, Love

We kept looking. Here in the Seattle area, there’s a website and app called Redfin that blows Zillow and all the rest out of the water. It’s integrated with the MLS system real estate agents use, such that whenever a new listing appears, or an existing listing is taken off the market, it updates automatically. In this heady real-estate market that means there are new listings to review several times a day and Bill and I both had our accounts set for alerts whenever anything new came up. There was always something new. There was always something to look at. We would always go look. And even when we weren’t looking, we had enabled email and mobile notifications, so that Redfin was constantly alerting us to deals it thought we should consider.

We spent most of our free time on drive-by visits to homes we’d found on Redfin, checking out the site and the neighborhood before we bothered a real estate agent to schedule a tour. We cared more about location and setting than the insides (which we figured we could always change) so we didn’t call for many tours. But we visited countless houses in all directions. Of course, that’s pretty normal around here: Eavesdrop on conversations in restaurants and bars and half of them will be about real estate, either buying and selling or making improvements. The entire region is real estate-obsessed. That’s one of many, many signs that the area is in a bubble, that at some point the madness will stop and prices will fall. That it would, perhaps, be smarter to wait, except that neither of us much liked the idea of moving into another temporary rental and having to move again in another year or two.

All Bill talked about with our musician friends (many of whom are also contractors) was different houses, different areas. They were being patient, for now, he said, but at some point they weren’t going to hear it anymore. Too many drive-arounds was beginning to cut into my work schedule. There was Redfin, always beckoning with another house to go visit. But if we didn’t come up with a winner in the next crop, we agreed, we would dial it back.

We took one more drive-around in Lake Stevens, then headed back to Snohomish for one of our rare real-estate appointment viewings. Heading down a side road, as the GPS directed us, we passed a real estate sign pointing up a small dead-end street. “Want to go see?” Bill said. And then we both remembered that a house on that street had come up in our Redfin searches. It was within our budget. Bill had even placed it on his long list of addresses to visit, although neither of us thought much would come of it. It was a low-looking house, surrounded by a chain-link fence, with a description that made it sound like it needed work. Still, here we were, practically driving by, so we turned up the street. We found the owner working on the deck.

“We don’t mean to disturb you, we’re just house-hunting,” Bill called out.

“I would love to show you my house!” he answered, so we got out of the car.

My online searches had led me back to this neighborhood again and again, where there were still large yards and grass and trees, a relief from the endless developments in every direction. Up on the deck, you were literally overlooking Route 2–as in looking over the top of it so you couldn’t actually see it. What you could see was Ebey Slough, a tributary to the Snohomish River, and a tiny speck of Mount Rainier poking its snow-covered top up between the trees and…more trees.

There was a vegetable garden, strawberries, blueberries and grapes, some amazing trees called golden chains so named because of the beautiful strings of yellow flowers drooping from them. There was a large yard with a giant sweet gum tree and a fire pit. (Fire pits seem to be de rigueur in the Pacific Northwest.)

I had been yearning for well-established plantings. Bill had been yearning for a view.

There was a hot tub on the deck. Bill would say later that the house seemed to encourage funky decadence–having been built in 1965 and remodeled in 1967, it kept a lot of that 60s character. The kitchen was finished with mahogany in an odd assortment of mostly one-off cabinets that open in unexpected ways. The no-longer-existent Lake Stevens Junior College woodworking students had done it, the owner, whose name was Karl, explained. We were thoroughly charmed.

Then I poked my head into the bathroom off the master bedroom. There was a shower stall. “There’s no bathtub!” I called out to Bill. A bathtub is one of those things I truly don’t want to have to live without.

“Oh yes there is!” the owner said, and opened the door to a second bathroom a few feet down the hall. Here there was a baby blue bathtub with a shower handle attachment and a matching baby blue sink and toilet–and wall-to-wall carpeting. Funky decadence, yes!

So of course, we bought it.

Development World

They’re all around us. Crawling up from the river at the bottom of the hill, to the south of us on Ludwig Road and just around the corner to the north of us as well. Surrounding the grocery stores where we shop and lining the roads in all directions. Weaver Road was mostly hills and woods and large yards when we arrived a year and a half ago, but there was a clearing marked out with rows of wooden rods sticking up out of the ground to mark out plans. Now dozens of homes have not only been built here but the majority appear to be sold, with cars in their driveways. Even deep in the wild woods to the east of town where I once aspired to live, you suddenly find yourself at a grand gateway with an elegant-sounding name and rows of houses stretching out behind. Developments are everywhere.

Our reaction has always been: yuck! Cookie-cutter houses with tiny yards, neighbors a few yards away, all in shades of beige, gray, and off-white. The jokes about how you could go home to the wrong house by mistake if you weren’t careful. We don’t always agree about what we want in a house, but we agreed about this: No developments!

On the other hand, we’d done a drive-by visit to virtually every house in Snohomish or Lake Stevens that was anywhere near our price range and had found very little to love. But a lot of development houses seemed to come closest to combining our space and budget requirements and so our resolve had begun to waver.

“You know,” I said on Saturday, “There’s another open house going on in Snohomish today if you want to go look.” This house sounded like it had a lot of what we wanted. A decent, if not large, yard. Plenty of bedrooms and bathrooms, yet right in Snohomish, close enough that I might even walk to downtown or at least to the post office. And–maybe just barely–in our price range.

We got there and it was huge. A dreamy kitchen a nice living room with a fireplace (yay!) a family room with a wood stove (double yay!), more bedrooms than we’d know what to do with, which is to say quite a lot. A perfectly manicured yard that would take some work to keep up with, a deck off the kitchen and a balcony off the bedroom and…it was in a development.

Was that us? We were not development people. And yet we liked the house. We liked the neighbors too, having met some of them during our lengthy visit. Although when we talked to the lady next door, who loved fussing over her garden, her concern over finding a buyer who would care for the lawn gave me pause. Back in Snohomish, our lawn was hair-raisingly overgrown. We’d struggled to find someone to cut it affordably or to repair the riding mower Norman had left in the shed. Not that we were wild about living in a hay field, but it was nice to have neighbors with enough problems of their own that they didn’t care about the state of our yard.

Would this house make sense for us? Bill said he would manage to keep the lawn properly mowed. I was pretty sure I could handle the fairly modest plantings. And my anti-development bias, I knew, was a form of prejudice, as if living in cookie-cutter houses would somehow transform us into cookie-cutter people. Besides, these weren’t cookie-cutter houses: They’d been built in the 1980s with more variation among them than you typically see today (and likely more solid construction as well).

We stayed an hour, checking things out thoroughly and chatting with the real estate agent. God helped us, we liked the house. Maybe we could make an offer and they’d take a little less. For the amount of house, right in Snohomish, even the full asking price would be a really good deal in today’s market. We went home and called our real estate agent to ask her to look into making an offer. I spent the weekend hiking around the neighborhood, checking out the walk from the house to nearby Blackmans Lake.

The next morning I woke up feeling shaky. Being in a development felt all wrong. And the price. It was hard to tell in this topsy-turvy real estate world what we could and couldn’t afford. Low down payments had somehow become the norm–the lenders just tacked on mortgage insurance to cover themselves–and historically low interest rates would keep the monthly payments manageable. Even so, would it make sense to take on that level of debt?

I voiced my concerns to Bill, even though I knew he liked the house. “I’ve been thinking I should talk you out of it,” he responded. We called our broker and the point was moot because other buyers had already bid up the price into the definitely-unaffordable stratosphere.

We looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief.

Image: LancerE via Creative Commons

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Real Estate, Oy!

Western Washington Forest

Bill and I were in our car recently, driving to some event or other when my cell phone rang. It was our landlord calling to tell us that Norman and Amanda’s house, and more importantly the nine acres that went with it, were going on the market the following week. “It will probably take at least a year to close,” he added reassuringly.

It was nice that he warned us because a day or two later, I was working in my office when Bill yelled, “There’s a drone flying over our house!” Needless to say, he ran out and investigated. He found a young photographer using the drone to take pictures of the land and also taking pictures from the ground. (Well-paid work if you can get it, Bill also learned.)

A few days later, one of those huge two-sides-of-a-triangle signs appeared on the road by our property though nowhere near the driveway itself. I’d been a bit concerned about people knocking on the door but I needn’t have worried. No one would pay $2.15 million to live in this house, and indeed the sign advertises us as a “residential plat” with 9.33 acres. Welcome to the wacky, fun-filled world of Western Washington real estate.

We had every reason to know this was coming. Development is crawling up the road at us, swallowing up the old farms and farmhouses turning them into series of depressing beige boxes with no yards and spindly trees. The development that comes up to two houses south of us was offering 54 of these for $400,000 to $600,000 each, and they’re all or nearly all sold. It’s a crazy, crazy, crazy real estate market out there. The house next door to us is next, with its five acres, already permitted and sold, with the tenants on a month-to-month lease. We always knew this house would be next.

And so, we started looking around at real estate. But it’s a crazy, crazy market. The Venn diagram of houses that we like and houses we can afford is a very small overlap indeed. A few weeks ago, we tried to go to an open house at a house in the woods we’d visited a couple of times. It was much of what we’d wanted in a house, in the woods, with nearly five acres, a fairly nice house, a deck, and the trunks of primordially huge trees with the notches still in them from when loggers a century ago put planks a yard or two up the trunk and stood on them so as to cut across the trunk at a thinner spot than near the ground. It turns out that if you do it that way, the tree will regrow and that place was full of these old monsters that had regrown in various ways. It was magical, although the house was boringly generic. But it was only the second house we’d toured and it seemed to soon to make an offer. Which anyhow we might not have been able to make without a pre-approval letter that I hadn’t yet gotten from a lender.

So, I decided, I’d put the pre-approval in process and we would go to the open house and make a final decision as to whether to bid. No smart seller in this seller’s market, I reasoned, would sell the house days before an open house–you might get higher offers.

But no, we arrived at the open house to find the house deserted, the gate to the driveway closed. We retreated to Doc’s Pilchuck Tavern on Machias Road and put in a call to the Redfin person who’d shown us the place. Turned out, there was an accepted offer already and the house was off the market, the open house cancelled.

I felt like a fool–I’d been dreaming of a house in that wooded area east of town almost since I’d first seen that area (on the very stunning drive to the local dump). Why hadn’t I moved faster, tried harder? Most homes around there were half a million dollars or more. Here was one we could actually have afforded.

Drinking beer and licking our wounds by the river on Doc’s back deck, we decided we’d be quicker and more decisive next time we found something we really liked…

Image: The forest near the house we didn’t get.

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Amaxophobia Part 2

April 13

This post will make more sense if you read Amaxophobia Part 1 first.

The visit to the eye place was fine. A little shopping around Fred Meyer afterward was OK too. Here’s what wasn’t fine: I so rarely get out of the office on my own that I’d had a whole plan, after I got my eye exam, to wander around a little and explore. Only now, there was no way at all that I could face doing that. It was dark outside, still rainy (of course) and the traffic was as thick as ever. All I could think was how much I wanted to be away from it and home.

So I got in my car and touched the “Home” icon on my GPS. It instructed me, once again, to get on The Dreaded I-5. As I sat in the traffic inching its way onto the highway, the GPS popped up with a blue screen and a choice: There was traffic ahead. Did I want to stay on this route or try an alternate route? I figured I’d stay on this route since I couldn’t see an easy way out of the traffic to get on a different one anyhow.

That’s when I discovered that I couldn’t reach the GPS and keep my foot on the brake pedal at the same time. My new-to-me car had an aerodymanic profile that includes a long windshield angled low, so that when I suction-cupped the GPS near the bottom of the windshield so it wouldn’t obstruct my vision, I had also put it too far away for my short arms to easily reach. Until I made a selection, the blue screen would remain, which meant I no longer had a map to guide me. In a calmer state I would have remembered that whether or not I could see the map, the GPS would still give me vocal instructions and I would still make my way home. But all I could think was that I was alone in the dark in the rain in heavy traffic and effectively blind as to where to go.

Eventually, thankfully, the traffic got so bad that it came to a complete halt, which gave me the few moments I needed to squirm my way up to the windshield and touch the icon for “Current Route.” The map reappeared. Half an hour later I pulled up outside our white farmhouse and before I even got out of the car, I pulled the GPS off the windshield and replaced it where I could reach it.

Then I went inside in a high dudgeon. I’d have railed to Bill if he’d been home but he was out somewhere, probably playing music. So I did something I nearly never do–all by myself I poured myself a small scotch. I stood in the living room, with the lights still off, drinking my scotch and looking out the window and thinking: All I wanted was a damned eye exam! It would have been the simplest thing in the world to drive down to Kingston and go to Vision Excel on 9w. If only we were still back there.

But here’s the thing. Yes there’s nasty, nasty traffic here, but Washington drivers are also different from the drivers on the East Coast, and in a good way. In retrospect, one thing that added to my general sense of unease on the drive to and from the eye exam was the complete lack of aggression on the road. No honking. Washington drivers almost never use their horns. They don’t tailgate or flash their lights at you, except to warn of a nearby cop. Eventually, I came to think of it this way: Washington drivers don’t think it’s their job to tell other drivers how to drive.

That makes them different from New York drivers–even Bill. If Bill finds himself driving behind someone going down a country road at five miles less than the speed limit, he’ll complain bitterly to me in the passenger seat, but also might find himself tailgating and maybe flashing his lights. And if someone is going slow in the left lane, rather than pass on the right he’ll communicate in every way he can that the driver ahead of him should pull the hell over.

Back in New York I had become accustomed to this sort of instruction (to use a kind term for it) from my fellow drivers. Washington drivers may go around you if there’s room to do it. But most of them won’t pressure you if they think you’re going too fast, or too slow, or waiting too long to make a turn, or whatever it may be. This live-and-let-live approach to life goes way beyond just driving. I think it’s a legacy of the pioneer West, as opposed to the colonial East.

They also look out for other drivers in ways New Yorkers don’t. The merging lanes onto Route 9 from Second Street near our house seem impossibly–dangerously–short to me. But that’s because, in my mind, I’m imagining how New York drivers would barrel by them, not giving entering drivers much space to join the road, making things awkward for everyone.

Washington drivers always, always let other drivers in. To a fault. The first time I merged onto Route 9, I saw a car coming up behind me and slowed way down, assuming it would fly past and then I’d merge onto the road. Only it didn’t fly past as I waited, going slower and slower. Finally I heard the rare sound of a horn and looked in my mirror to discover that the other driver had slowed to a crawl and was patiently waiting for me to enter the road.

What a weird experience.

Image: Travis Juntara via Creative Commons

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Amaxophobia Part 1

Amaxophobia = The fear of riding in a vehicle. 

April 8, 2016

When it comes to some things, I’m a coward. Not that I’m not a courageous person in general–I think I’ve made some brave decisions in my life, as well as any number of cowardly ones. But there’s one activity where the fearful side of my nature emerges in full force, to the point where I’m nearly incapacitated.

Driving.

Most people I know are comfortable behind the wheel. But they didn’t live in Manhattan, then Iowa City, then Paris, and then Manhattan again–all places where most everything is walkable, there’s plenty of public transportation, and a driver’s license is nice to have but in no way a necessity. In concentrated cities with good public transportation such as New York or Paris, having a car can be more of an expensive nuisance than anything else.

Thus, though I took Driver’s Ed and got a driver’s license back in high school like everyone else, once I had the license I never actually used it except on the rare business trip or vacation until I moved to Woodstock at the age of 32. For the first time I began driving on a daily basis.

But Woodstock is very different from here. It’s 100 miles from New York City, whereas Snohomish is less than 30 miles from downtown Seattle. In Woodstock we were in the country. Snohomish is a small town, but drive a mile or two south on Route 9, and you’re unmistakably in the suburbs. Or you can just stand still and wait for the suburbs to come to you.

From my point of view, the big difference, the oh-my-God-this-changes-everything difference, is traffic. Living in Woodstock kept me out of any kind of traffic except on those rare occasions when I drove north to Albany, or even rarer, south to Poughkeepsie. I never drove to what we simply called The City–it was so easy not to, with the Metro-North commuter rail line right there on another North-South state road that paralleled a major highway and for some reason was also called Route 9. If you were smart, you stayed off the New York State Thruway northbound on Friday afternoons in summer, and then southbound on Sunday evenings. Other than that, traffic was something I never had to think about. Snow, ice, and winding mountain roads, yes. Deer leaping in front of the car were a constant worry. Traffic, no.

Here, traffic is all around, even on the thoroughfares through Snohomish (though we’re learning some back ways), up and especially down 9, on the way to Everett, which is what you might call our market town, and thick the moment you head in the direction of Seattle. And this is the West, where traffic is inescapable. You can’t ignore it by walking everywhere, you can’t circumvent it with public transportation, you’re stuck with it. It’s a major problem for everyone, but most people just find it deeply annoying. I also find it frightening.

Not long after we moved here, I decided to have an eye exam. Not because I couldn’t see but because I hadn’t had one in a while. As a matter of fact, I have the worst vision one can have and still legally drive without glasses in Washington State, although I always do wear glasses when I’m driving.

I made an appointment, headed to the eye place at Fred Meyer (a local big-box store), and found myself in heavy urban late-afternoon traffic. It was winter, and therefore rainy. I followed my GPS instructions onto I-5, also known as The Dreaded I-5. There are many good ways of going back and forth between Snohomish and Everett and none of them involve I-5, but nevertheless most GPS systems will send you by I-5 by default and I hadn’t yet learned any other ways to get there.

At least I wasn’t on the Dreaded I-5 for very long. In less than ten miles, I was instructed to exit onto Evergreen Way, a four-lane road that at that hour was a solid wall of traffic. The Fred Meyer was just over a quarter mile away–but on which side? The GPS would only tell me when I reached that quarter-mile. And if I guessed wrong, there would be no way I could get over in time. I eased to the right lane, partly out of a vague memory that it would be on that side and partly because the thought of a left turn in that mess gave me the heebie jeebies. By some stroke of luck, I guessed right.

Want to know what happens next? Stay tuned for Part 2.

Image of The Dreaded I-5: Jeff Wilcox via Creative Commons

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Not Confusing at All

There’s a song by the Emerald City Jug Band that our friend Drew played us when we were first planning to move here. It’s called “Don’t Come to Seattle,” and it’s all about how unwelcome new arrivals to the area are. Is that how locals (most of whom also started life elsewhere) really feel about newcomers? If they do, you can’t blame them–more people are moving here now than at any time since the Gold Rush.

I don’t believe new people truly are unwelcome, at least not in Snohomish, which despite severe economic pressure to turn itself into a far suburb of Seattle and Redmond remains a charming old-style small town. And people in Washington seem to be unfailingly friendly, warm, and generally happy–there must be Prozac in the water, Drew says.

So perhaps there’s some other explanation I can’t think of for the way streets and places are named around here which seems deliberately intended to confuse people and send them off in the wrong direction. Bill and I have encountered this phenomenon so many times we’ve developed a ritual around it.

Me: “That’s not confusing!”

Him: “Not at all.”

Take Second Street (not 2nd Street) in Snohomish. Logically enough, that’s a long street that runs parallel to the Snohomish River and is between First and Third Streets in the old part of town. West of Ludwig Road, it’s called Riverview Road, and it runs right along the river, at some point changing its name to Rivershore Road. (That’s not confusing! Not at all.)

Going east, from Ludwig Road through most of Snohomish, it’s called Second Street, then the same road, without turning, changes into 92nd Street, and a bit further, still without turning, becomes 88th Street. One result is that if you’re driving east on Route 2 and want to go into Snohomish, you have to take the 88th Street exit which puts you onto 92nd Street. That’s not confusing either.

In Seattle, it’s even worse. Everyone knows the mnemonic for the names of Seattle’s major thoroughfares–Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest–but can’t recite the names of the streets those letters stand for. And did I mention that each of these letters stands for not one street but two–Jefferson and James, Cherry and Columbia, Marion and Madison…you get the idea. Are you confused yet? I certainly am.

Even the Seahawks, who personify their city in so many ways, are in on this. Wilson successfully passed to Willson during their last playoff game this season. But here’s my favorite of them all:

In Monroe, the next town east of here, is Tye Lake, a man-made lake stocked with plenty of fish and set up for family recreation. In Concrete, about 80 miles further east and north, is Lake Tyee, a much larger lake with an RV community along its shores. Were both were named for the surveyor William Francis Tye, who laid out the railroad line across Stevens Pass? Who knows?

All I can say is this:

That’s not confusing!

Not at all.