In All Her Glorious Moods

I’ve taken up hiking. Living in the Pacific Northwest, it’s so incredibly easy to sneak away to a mountain and walk until your feet fall off. So why had I only done it once or twice in the dozen years I’ve been a resident?

Never had a good enough reason, I suppose. So when hiking came up as part of a training plan, I took it up right away, along with the running and the weight lifting and other such exercises.

It turns out that of all the new activities recommended for training, hiking is my favorite. It’s not as uncomfortable as running or as time-limited as weight lifting, and I get to spend hours and hours off in the woods, testing myself and letting my mind wander after my feet.

Since I’ve discovered this, I’ve been out time after time after time. I speed walked Little Si in 47 minutes on my first day out. It took me two hours to summit Mount Si and four to reach Mt Teneriffe. I’ve walked back and forth, through snow and mud and rain and rock, and every time I go I live something new.

On my first try for the summit, I hit Teneriffe connector trail at the two hour mark and tried to keep going, but the snow deepened. Not just any snow but thick, wet, slushy snow. The kind that doesn’t hold you up, only slows you down. I got farther than I thought I would, but nowhere near the top.

With it being so late in the season, I assumed that would be my last chance until spring. I wasn’t prepared for snowshoeing and I figured I’d exhaust this mountain and several more before graduating to tougher stuff in a few months. A few weeks after that first attempt I had an ersatz hike planned. I figured, with the snow and the cold, I would just run up and down Little Si and see if I could improve my time. Maybe run it more than once to pad my workout.

The dawn, though, came with a surprise.

The snow hadn’t fallen in days. It had, in fact, melted. Not all of it, but enough. The freezing point, according to forecasts, was well above the peak. I could try it again, try to summit Mt Teneriffe once more before the year was out and the snow got worse.

This time, instead of rain, cold rain that leeches the warmth from your body and makes sweat feel like melting ice, there was sun. Golden sifting sun, low in the sky, slanting between the tree trunks. I half expected Gandalf to step out from behind a cedar as I turned each corner, zig zagging my way up toward the first challenge. I made the false summit with pride in only a few hours, though I didn’t have time to make it just that last half mile before the day ended.

For a decent while I didn’t try again. I stuck to Mount Si, hit Rattlesnake Ridge a few times, and found a hiking buddy to come with me on occasion. Some weeks I was too busy to go but the cravings to go harder, get better, go somewhere new, drove me back again and again.

So I tried Teneriffe again. In my pride I was sure I could make it. I gave myself what I thought was plenty of time. I had my water filter for refills, I chose a sunny day, brought plenty of snacks, had my hiking poles for stability on the snow… And I made it. The terrifying peak, covered in dense, deceptive snow, with a precipitous drop on the far side innocently hidden until almost the last minute… I defied the limitations of my body, time, and wisdom to slog through snow that can only be described as angry. I made it up, I made it down again, but I got lost twice, fell off the trail five or six times, and cursed the day I failed to heed my body.

Because I’ve been paying attention to it a lot lately. To how I feel physically in any given moment, which is how I knew I shouldn’t have gone past that false peak. But also to my moods, which is how stubbornness won out. I’ve been noticing how the way I feel changes depending on where my body is, and how what I think has little bearing on either.

Like the mountain. I marveled at how wildly different she was each time I went up. Sometimes pleasant and inviting, sometimes challenging yet indulgent, sometimes downright cranky. And other mountains have their own moods. Once, on a rare accompanied hike, we saw them all in one day. Warm sun, cold rain, drifting snowy, and driving sleet, one right after the other as we joyously trudged our way up and down.

I only experience this variety because I go often, and with few expectations. I show up, week after week, and take what I’m given. Mud and rain, snow and hail, brilliant sparkling days, solitude, companionship. Each day, each mood offering me a new experience. Every hike has been wonderful. Whether I’m learning my limits, defying them, or existing conscientiously within them I walk away, literally, with another day under my belt, another experience to treasure.

I expect that the summer months will be grueling, hot and possibly uncomfortable. But also expansive, with more and more trails becoming possible as snow retreats and roads are passable farther and farther up. I’ll only know if I keep going, keep showing up prepared to savor it all.

With some of my regular visitors I’ve started to notice the same phenomenon. When we see each other more and more, we find ourselves more open with our moods. Sometimes subdued, sometimes nervous, but sometimes downright boisterous. Each mood and moment offering a different experience, similar, but new. Like my trips to the mountains: every hike is a long walk, but how I feel and what I experience each time is a little different. The more often I go out, the better I get to know each one, and the more varied my experience. The more I notice small differences. The more comfortable I am with their twists and turns, their ups and downs.

It’s been such a privilege to get to know our local mountains. I’m looking forward to getting to know more of them, and getting to know them better by spending time with them in all their seasons.

In all their glorious moods.

Welcome back, My Love.

When I was a new provider, I met so many new people. People full of joy and laughter, expectations, sorrow and ire, all people who touched me in some way, and many of whom I touched as well.

I have gone through several iterations of me. I have tightened up my boundaries in some ways, eased them in others. I have become both more wary, and more welcoming by turns. I have honed my skill set, tried a variety of bedroom based activities and adopted some into my regular routine. I have been a shoulder to cry on many times, and opened people’s eyes to the wonders of pleasure, and the possibilities their bodies provide.

As happens in this industry and many others, some of my beloved old friends have left me. Some with words of care and parting, a few with anger, but most simply disappearing from my inbox, leaving a lingering emptiness that makes way for new things, but never really goes away.

I have a place in my heart where they live, those who have found love, made their way to new cities, re-prioritized their finances, gone through health changes, or simply achieved what they came to do and moved on.

But I’ve been around a while, now, and old friends have begun popping up out of the woodwork! Pandemic put a pause on many things, and there’s an entire year there that doesn’t feel like a real year. For a while around 2021-2022 I found a lot of folks returning to the demimonde after brief breaks but that felt different. That felt like a collective breath held and finally let out.

When I say old friends, I mean *old* friends. Folks I met in my beginning years, who got to know me before I knew myself. People who can claim to have met me in my very first, dank, barred-window incall with dripping walls, a massive gold couch, the cuddle closet, and that occasional surprise asbestos remediation.

I tell you, it’s a trip. I feel guilty, because my memory is already porous and the years do not do much to bolster those moments that stuck. It doesn’t help that the things I remember, the specifics that stick in my mind, are never those that stick in yours. You remember the nakedness, the sensuality, the sex. I remember getting locked out with you. I remember the broken radiator, the maintenance guy that saw us walking by, I remember your face, but rarely your name, and details often slip my mind.

I will almost always be happy to reconnect with old friends. One of the freeing aspects of this being a professional relationship is that I don’t expect you to behave like a regular friend. I don’t expect to know why I don’t hear from you anymore. I’m not on your Christmas letter list and that’s ok. My emotional state, outside of our time together, is not your problem. There are enough perks associated with our relationship that, while it’s always nice to know where you are and why I haven’t seen you in a while, I won’t be mad when you un-ghost me.

However.

Those intervening years mean something. I won’t hold them against you, but I also can’t credit you for them. If it’s possible to trade on ancient rapport, I will, but even with stored goodwill, I am a different person than I was ten years ago, seven, five, or even one. I hope you are, too. I won’t presume to know you as you are today, and I hope you will do me the same courtesy.

There are so many people I used to know in this sacred, intimate way. I miss many of them, and think fondly on what they may be up to. Sometimes I wonder what they’d think of me now. I know some folks would call me rude, uppity, for saying a firm no when before I had only meek okays to offer. Others might be surprised at how much more self aware I am. Slightly more interesting, if I do say so myself. More collected, as well, though still prone to excited tangents when some topics come up. Less humble than I was, less accommodating (though still good, giving, and game for most things). But with such a greater capacity for pleasure now than ever before.

If you’re reading this, and you’re wondering if it would be ok to reach out again: yes. With extremely rare exception, I am happy to reconnect, and get to know the you of now as well or better than I ever knew the you of back then. Just be aware that if it’s been more than a year or so it’s entirely possible we are re-starting, not resuming our relationship.

And what possibilities, my love, lie there in the new beginning.

Come back, old friend. I very probably miss you.

Good Grief, 2023!

We are moving toward the end. The year moves inexorably to a close and we find ourselves reflecting. We hope. Planning for a better year next year.

I believe 2023 was the year of grieving, for me. A year of loss and pain and endings.

In September 2022, a professional conflict that had been simmering between me and my former friend and mentor since the spring resurfaced. She did something I didn’t agree with. I did something she didn’t like. The conflict got personal, then nasty. I couldn’t relax, nor could I reconcile, and the stress of it all had my hair literally falling out. In December we parted ways permanently, and with bad blood.

In November of the same year, a friend’s boyfriend kissed me. The kiss in itself wasn’t a problem, but it brought others to light and over the next few months, I tried to establish new norms of conduct between us. It did not go well. By September, other fractures in other relationships had grown and the tension in ours was the final fissure. The entire social group, one that sustained us through pandemic and saved at least one life, had shattered by the end of the month.

In the meantime, my best friend suffered a mental breakdown. A variety of stressors (stolen car, job woes, a loved one’s failing health, among others) turned my mild-mannered, self sacrificing friend into a ball of rage that careened through her closest relationships at the slightest provocation. It was touch and go for most of the summer but I have reason to expect that this relationship, at least, will emerge stronger than ever. Of the three of my friends, people I was close to, shared secrets and time and love with, only she is committed to our future. She has apologized and she is working diligently toward a permanently stronger position and with her, so am I.

For most of my life, I’ve been a pushover. A people pleaser who would rather suffer quietly than possibly, maybe, potentially upset someone. More than that, I would solve every problem around me, not out of selflessness or love, but to avoid proximity to other people’s upset feelings.

It turns out that when you stop doing that, people who liked you when you did, don’t really like you anymore. For the first time in my life, I stuck up for myself. Like, really stuck up for myself. I pushed back on things I didn’t feel were right, and when the pressure turned up I didn’t run away.

Finally. After doing it over and over for 34 years, I didn’t run away.

I am walking away from these relationships, from this year, grateful and proud. Grateful for the learning opportunities, for the tools I’ve walked away with, and for the good times I had before things fell apart. Proud of myself for making the effort to change things I didn’t like, and for not giving in this time. I feel so much older, so much less afraid. I feel more prepared for the future, more able to handle what others might do. I’m a little more cautious, which is good but also makes me a little sad. I have more patience for other people’s feelings, but less now for their actions. I am willing to tolerate others’ discontent, and unwilling to tolerate bad behavior. I feel victorious in a battle of wills against my old self and after a year long battle, ready to be calm for a while.

Because dear god I’m so glad that’s over. At every stage of every conflict I second guessed myself. I had to constantly remind myself (when I had the presence of mind to realize it) that what I felt was real, that it was reasonable, and that what I was asking for was also reasonable. In dozens of conversations, poring over comments and asides, looking at situations from every possible angle, I checked and rechecked my assumptions. Was I being fair in my descriptions when seeking outside perspective? Did other people’s opinions confirm my conclusions? Was there any room at all for me to be wrong, apologize, and fix this by once again sacrificing my own well being to ease others’ anger?

For weeks on end I could think of nothing else, and the stress of being in the thick of the process grated on those around me. Now that it’s over, I almost feel weird being at peace. Taking a long walk and thinking about the answers to my crossword puzzle and the events of the book I’m reading instead of writing and rewriting messages in my head, jumping at every turn, afraid to say a wrong word and set off another tirade. To say “not much” when people ask what I’ve been up to and realize that’s the truth. To feel normal and sure of myself.

It feels weird.

It feels good.

That, my beloved readers, is one reason I’ve been away so long. Instead of inspiration, my waking hours had been taken up with some things I simply couldn’t share. They were too personal, they were often someone else’s private business, and they were muddled. And now they’re done.

Though my writing schedule is unlikely to return to the weekly notes I once sent, I do have a few things in the wings, fun things I hope you’ll enjoy.

Thank you, again, to my dear patrons who have supported me, listened, and yet been too wise to pry. This year has been a wild ride and I couldn’t have done it without you.

Ants

Funny how things come in threes sometimes.

I spent an afternoon with the cuttlefish and less than a week later, was gifted a book. Science fiction, about alien worlds and megalomaniacs and regular old humanity trying to survive. It featured sentient spiders and computers made of ants, and followed a man, a language nerd upon whose shoulders rests humanity’s last chance, as destiny jerks him to and fro.

After the book ends, a few generations pass, and the next book begins. The spiders and the humans and the ant-colony-computer-based AI all troop off toward a mysterious radio signal and a distant world.

This world is full of sentient octopuses.

Ten days after staring my cuttlefish friend in the eye, I lay on my sofa, reading a scene where an octopus, a human, and a giant spider meet, stare each other in the eyes, and try to learn how to communicate.

It was surreal.

And today, less than a week after closing the back cover on what is essentially a space opera, I stopped, crouched, and stared in wonder at a colony of ants, bustling around living their little ant lives. I wondered if, perhaps, the author of Children of Time didn’t have an interesting idea. If electron based computing power operates on a series of ones and zeros, ons and offs, who’s to say that an ant colony, properly guided with pheromone signals, couldn’t become something more computational than a massive bridge or giant ball? I couldn’t see a pattern in the colony’s movement, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Out of curiosity, I puffed a hefty breath at them, enough to life some off their little bug feet and roll them a few centimeters one way and the other. Immediately, their pace increased. The clover leaf patterns and long lines moving in, out, and around the little ant hill sped up wildly, but it didn’t look like anything else changed. The patterns I didn’t see before still didn’t emerge, nor did I notice them changing.

But change they did. Before long, the clover leaf leaves grew and a few individuals found my shoe. Whether or not they recognized it as enemy, I figured it was time to go. I tried brushing them off and that’s when another instinct kicked it.

She bit me!

Not on the toe, but on my glove. I was wearing some simple knit gloves and this tiny little creature latched her tiny little jaws on to the tiny little threads of my glove. Held thusly in place, she bent her booty around to spray what must have been the tiniest, weakest spray of bum acid at me.

This is how they fight other insects and take down prey. Mindlessly, she fought on behalf of her colony, against this monstrous enemy, and she held on tight. Like, surprisingly tight. So tight I couldn’t just brush her off. I had to pinch her body between thumb and forefinger of my other hand, break her fast little grip, and be quick to shake her back onto the ground before she got hold of the other glove.

How wild, these little things! Several people passed me as I crouched entranced, on bikes and on foot. I’m sure they thought I was an absolute nutter. My favorite walking shoes don’t look as comfortable as they are, and the combination of winter gloves and sunglasses can’t have fit in, even in Seattle. Add to that me intently staring at nothing, head bent down close to the ground, a joyful, incredulous, possibly maniacal under the circumstances grin on my face, and you get a bit of an odd sight. At least, the thought occurred to me once or twice while I watched.

I do this sometimes. Watch the world go by at it’s impossibly slow, frantic pace. I once watched dragonflies hatching, moving occasionally from one bursting shell to the next, observing each one at it’s separate, communal point in development. They have to climb out of the water, get high enough on a branch they can get some sunshine but not so high they get spotted by predators, then they split their backs open and push their torsos out first. Though I’m not sure it’s the same for dragonflies, I know that butterflies have to struggle in order for their wings to function. Each wing is threaded with dozens of capillaries that must fill with fluid in order to full expand. I watched wings start crinkled like badly packed vacation clothes and slowly, millimeter by millimeter, straighten and expand into the flat, iridescent wings we’re used to. Then, they start moving their wings. Slowly at first, drying and strengthening them. And then they lift off.

There’s something meditative about watching nature. Children, insects, small creatures of the woods, just going about their lives, carrying out programming that goes back to the dawn of time and led, over generations, to the creature they are right then, right there.

The books are Children of Time and Children of Ruin, respectively. I found them a simple pleasure, if a little predictable. Your “nerd just gives peace a chance and the wildly overpowered other guy turns out to be just like you and wants peace, too” trope is heavily used here, and is spreading. Season two of Picard did the same thing. But the descriptions are vivid, an important literary tool for those of us who see the worlds we read about rendered in our head, and I enjoyed the speculation. What would society look like if we were all jumping spiders? What if we were octopuses? What if we were us, but those others existed? How would we talk to each other? What if my little cuttlefish buddy and I had, over time, been able to communicate with each other and discover, to both of our surprise, that the answer to many of my questions was “yes”?

The Movie Doesn’t Make the Man

I am a huge fan of Michael Caine. Not necessarily his movies (though The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my all time favorites) but him as a person. In the wake of #MeToo, it seemed like every dick in Hollywood had done something dumb and it was all finally coming out. Michael was one of the few left unaccused.

It’s possible that his infractions were so long ago, or his victims were so far from show business that they simply didn’t come forward, but it seems far more likely that he is one of those men who can, in fact, behave like a professional when they are at work. Wild, I know.

I have always loved him as Scrooge and every year the muppets make an appearance in my holiday parade of classic Christmas films. One year I googled his name during the movie and read this amazing story about how he came to be there. He was at a point in his career where he got to be choosy when it came to scripts, and he chose projects as much for work life balance and who his coworkers would be as for the brilliance of the script or size of the paycheck.* Realizing that he had so far done nothing that his eight year old daughter could watch, he chose a child friendly project so they could all enjoy the fruits of his labor as a family.

I may or may not have dived head first into Hot Toddy season by then, but I to this day have several minutes of video that I recorded and sent to a friend where I sobbed at what a wonderful, thoughtful, just over all nice person he was, and how happy I was to be singing along. “The love we found, the love we found, we carry with us, and we’re never, quite, alone.”**

So as I browsed the internet, or read someone else’s book, or some other how stumbled across his book Blow the Bloody Doors Off I immediately snagged it from the library.

It’s an autobiography, with all the ego and self centeredness necessary to assume other people want to read about your life. Except it’s not. He can’t stop falling over himself to thank other people. He lavishly complements other actors, thanks his family and mentors for their love and encouragement, rarely names names when he tells stories of other people’s bad behavior (he only name drops when it’s a fully fledged statement of someone’s bad character or attitude), and acknowledges what advantages he did have as a tall, white, handsome man coming into Hollywood in the sixties and seventies.

And within all that, he shares things he’s “learnt” over the years. Not always specific to film or theater, but life lessons that apply anywhere.

“Be Reliable” I have covered. If nothing else, I show up when I’m expected. I seem to be chronically five minutes behind, but otherwise I am there, and I am present.

“Be Yourself” is also easy for me. Sure, it’s a polished, selected version of myself, but I still crack jokes, overindulge, and enjoy the outdoors.

“Be Prepared” however, I’m still working on. Oh I’m dressed, and the lights are low and the sheets are clean and there’s water for tea, but his preparation is intense. He will have every line for the entire film memorized by day one. Not only that, but he has already thought his way through two or three different ways of delivering them, ready to do his best, or to pivot as the director asks.

I am fortunate. Since I’m “playing the same part” over and over, every performance is also a rehearsal for next time, and flubbing a line doesn’t ruin the scene. But there is still a lot I could do to be more prepared. Many of my readers are already aware that I have a truly atrocious memory. Especially for names. There are ways to solve that. And while flubbing a line may not exactly ruin a scene, having a good one handy can make it, oh SO much better.

I have some ideas, specific to me but inspired by his words, to make my experience, and yours, even better in subtle ways. I look forward to trying them, reflecting on them and maybe even sharing them.

So thank you, Sir Michael Caine. Your brief journey down memory lane, at the ripe age of 85, didn’t change much for me, but it felt good to spend an afternoon with a solidly good damn guy. It always feels good to spend an afternoon with a good damn guy.

*It goes both ways. He missed his chance to accept his first Oscar because he was on location for JAWS 2. He tells everyone who asks about it that he knows it’s awful, he’s never seen it, but he has seen the house it bought and his mother is very happy with it.

**This is the final reason I am firmly in camp love song. Belle’s refrain as she leaves Ebeneezer is “The love is gone, the love is gone. I wish you well, but I must leave you now, alone.” Without the love song, the final refrain loses half it’s meaning.

CuttleFish

I haven’t been to the aquarium in ages so I was delighted when one of my beloved patrons suggested a trip as a way to spend some time between the bedroom and the dinner table.

I have mixed feelings about animals in captivity. On the one hand, the Seattle Aquarium works almost exclusively with rehabilitated animals or those born in captivity, particularly birds and mammals. Their salmon hatchery is small but educational, and they only keep their octopuses for a few months before returning them to the wild.

On the other, the Dolphinarium in Puerto Aventuras had a fully grown sea lion in an enclosure smaller than my apartment. And if you didn’t otherwise need to be convinced that keeping charismatic mega fauna is inherently inhumane, you must have missed the nation’s collective  binge watch of Tiger King.*

But an aquarium is populated largely by invertebrates and otherwise relatively low needs creatures. Their internal worlds, as far as we can tell, are small and so it seems so much less cruel to keep them in (well maintained) tanks. In fact, it seems quite the opposite. In a world full of predators, offering simple prey animals a sanctuary, and feeding predators relatively easy meals, is kind of like offering them an early retirement.

While I did enjoy the afternoon (it turned into a gorgeous day and the outdoor sections became a pleasure to linger in), I felt a snag or two, watching the fur seals and the river otters doing laps, bored off their cute furry asses. I know they wouldn’t survive in the wild, being either rescued or captive bred, and that helps me feel better. It also helps that the staff are dedicated not just to the physical health of the animals, but also to offering them enrichment and amusement, just like we do with our pets at home.

But no amount of sea otters feeding and harbor seals hamming for the tourists** kept me from returning to my favorite exhibit.

The Cuttlefish

Cuttle fish are not fish, they are cephalopods, related to Octopuses and squids. And they. Are. Awesome.

Seattle Aquarium has seven (that I found.) There are two near the seahorses, down low where the little uns can see them, and they are the more colorful ones. Their resting mantle colors are vivid blues and purples and yellows, but they change them at the drop of a hat. They can also change the texture of their skin, smoothing out or projecting spikes to blend in and hide or stand out and threaten.

Though the vivid ones were pretty, they’r tucked into a small corner, and the two were in neighboring tanks, unable to interact with one another.

Moving to the next room, we found a tank with five all together, and at adult eye level. This species is called Sepia bandensis and has a far less vibrant mantle. And their inter… cuttle-al? interpersonal interactions were SO COOL to watch. They mostly hang out under their little rocks, blending in so perfectly that at first I only counted three. While we watched, they came out and slowly, glacially, had a little tiff.

I think it was two males and a female, because one stayed low to the ground, her skin color and texture changing so slowly I almost didn’t notice it, while the other two jockeyed for proximity. They flashed from white to so purple they were almost black, spikes jutting from their skin and then smoothing out. The one in the middle showed his angry black top side to his rival as his underside, the side facing the female, was a reassuring white. As they moved around each other, like a sitcom rendered in silent ballet, their colors strobed, flashed, bled from one to the next, telegraphing meaning in an instant.

The subtleties of color and the speed with which they changed it, slow sometimes, when adjusting camouflage, lighting fast when telling someone else to piss off, are myriad. The color changes are controlled by a special type of cell that (called a chromatophore) they have instant and total mastery of starting at birth. Well, hatching. They come from lil eggs. They’re so cute!!

And how cute are they, anyway!?! Their eyes are at the transition point between their fat, oval little bodies and their short tentacles. Depending on which way they’re approaching you, they might look like they have an enormous fat nose and a teeny tiny little body, or they might look like they have a big round belly while their face is long and skinny. When their tentacles are all together, it looks like a long nose and a slightly disapproving face, but when they open their tentacles for whatever reason, they suddenly become a chibi Cthulhu, their small stature preventing any real scare factor from their tentacle ringed maw. Their motile fin is incredibly thin and encircles their bodies, a gossamer fluttering tutu.

And the best part? When they’re near the ocean floor, they take their bottom two tentacles and use them like little leggies! They’re buoyant, so the legs walk in a kind of astronaut slo mo effect as they wander to and fro.

At the end of our leisurely walking tour, after cruising the mammal tanks and swimming with the whales in virtual reality, we had enough time to revisit one exhibit and I chose cuttlefish.

The love triangle seemed to have cooled off for now and all five little smushy water dirigibles hid in their rocks, indistinguishable from their surroundings.

I don’t know which one it was. Maybe it was the female (I didn’t read until later that you can count their tentacles to discern male from female), maybe it was one of the observers to the delicate dance battle. No matter, one of them broke away from her stony hiding place and slowly, slowly approached the glass. She moved to the opposite side of the window, her little tenticlegs cautiously bringing her my direction. Finally, she settled across from me, mere centimeters of glass separating our noses, and we watched each other.

It’s almost impossible to know, and definitely to remember, what her mantle told me. She was in full camouflage, instinctively hiding her soft, tiny body from potential predators. He skin was mottled cream and brown and almost black, protrusions breaking up her silhouette, blending her into the gravel. And yet, she made small, subtle changes, strobing soft stripes that moved from head to toe, or from eye to forehead? It’s hard to tell what the equivalent would be. Her spikes sometimes softened at the tips, just a bit.

For a moment, nothing moved and no one else existed. I looked directly into her W shaped eye and wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking. What is this creature? This mute, bizarrely sized, caged creature. Did she know she was the one behind bars and not me? Was she wondering if I knew that I am me? Was she observing me, wondering about me, just as I was? And did she have the better life? Ostensibly free of stress, free of wondering about higher meanings or your impact on the planet, well fed and housed with stimulating neighbors, was she happier than me? Was I on the wrong side of the glass?

It’s a hard concept to accord any weight, later, over steaks and wine and gratuitous desserts. Cuttlefish don’t have orgasms, as far as we know, and their tongues are not for tasting, or for pleasure. Their lives are short and fraught, ruled by instincts and unable to know the wider world.

But it’s no harm to wonder, in both senses of the word. To wonder at my assumptions and ask questions of the world, and to wonder at this world of light and color and diversity and pain and majesty.

My thanks are often general, addressed to the many, many people who have helped me craft my life as it is, as I like it. But today I have the privilege of thanking one person. The wondrous gent who shared my joy, watching her watching me watching her, who conjured for me a day at the aquarium without knowing just how perfect it would be.

Thank you.

*To be fair, I missed it, too, but Didn’t miss the messaging.

**The river otters and the fur seals may have seemed kind of bored, but the harbor seals sure looked a lot like they were having fun interacting with visitors. They’d bump up against the glass right in front of someone, or boop face first into it at low speed. They played with each other, and took care to rest where people could see them clearly. Also they are one hundred percent adorable, and they’re a pretty sedentary species anyway.

The Dentist

I have never had a panic attack before. I’ve watched people have them (both before and after I knew what they were) and Ted Lasso has done a good job of portraying them, but I’ve never myself had that specific experience. My anxiety, when it arises, is more of a slow burn.

I also don’t like needles.

So when a needle full of novocaine slid slowly, deep, up into my jaw, I was prepared to hate it. I did. I was prepared to endure it. I did. I was not prepared to have a panic attack as it set in.

First, my heart rate spiked. I could feel it in my throat and hammering against my ribs. I tried to slow my breathing but it shook and rattled on the way in and out of my lungs. My hands shook, went icy cold and started to tingle. My palms dampened with sudden sweat and nausea hit the pit of my stomach.

I am so fucking proud of myself.

During the last few months of least year, I found myself in a situation that meant frequent but low level stress responses. I spent time learning exactly what adrenaline and cortisol feel like when they hit your system. I learned how to calm myself down and how to ask my body what it needed from me to heal. It wasn’t a fun experience, but it was valuable, because in this moment, when I wasn’t expecting this response at all, I was masterful in my handling of it.

I realized what was going on. I communicated with the staff. I breathed… in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. In, hold, out, hold. Then for six. Finally, all the way up to a count of ten in each phase.

One of the scariest parts of a panic attack is not knowing what’s going on. The first time I watched someone have a panic attack, neither of us knew what it was or what it meant. We wondered whether it would be worth going to the hospital. We sat, confused and afraid, in the car, hoping it would go away. But without the tools to name and dissipate it, The effects lasted for hours, the fear for years.

When, within the space of an hour, I experienced the symptoms of panic attack, calmed myself down, communicated my needs, and returned to baseline, I was SO proud of myself.

And proud of my body.

At one point, about halfway through (and yes, the dentist and his technician were still going about their work) that nausea I felt in my stomach asked for my attention. In some of my meditations, I have visualized light of several colors rolling off of me, as if I was shedding love, calm, or strength, depending on the color. I put my hand flat, palm down, right over the soft spot under my sternum, applied gentle, sustained pressure, and saw behind my closed eyelids, the blue, cool light of calm coming from my open hand and soaking into my upset tummy. Next, my throat. I slipped my other hand under the little paper chest apron they give you and rested, cool, on my chest, just below my throat. As I cooled off and calmed down, my hands adjusted, finding the spots that needed attention and filling them with calm.

I wonder how things might have been different if I’d known this years ago. Perhaps I could have been more present for myself and my friends. Perhaps I could have found my voice sooner.

Rumination is one of my stressors so I’ll avoid it here. I am only grateful that whatever I’ve been doing, the reading, the meditation, the visualization, and constantly learning from others’ experiences, helped that day.

When I went back to have the other side done, I was ready. It turns out there’s epinephrine in the novocaine. It was likely responsible for my symptoms and now that I knew what to expect, I wasn’t afraid. I got a little shaky and my heart rate went up, but I didn’t need the focus that, the first time, was critical.

I almost cried with joy. Hand on heart, noticing my body, asking it what I needed to do and actually receiving a response, I felt this flood of gratitude. Thank you for telling me we’re in danger. Thank you for telling me how to help you. I thought. You’re doing such a good job, body, and I love you. 

I cry fairly often. It’s normal for me to express love in a flood of tears. I am trying to learn to let them come in the moment and embrace the awkwardness of those around me. However. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to explain to the dentist that my tears weren’t of pain. Particularly since his hands, the assistant’s hands, a bite spacer, and several tools were all jammed in to my incredibly tiny mouth. I had to change my train of thought and put my tears off until later. They still haven’t come. But they will.

There’s no particular point or ending here. This kind of work, learning the theory behind emotional health, practicing it in moments when you’re already calm, and drawing on it in moments of very-not-calm, is ongoing. There are dozens of approaches, each suited for different minds and hearts. For the lucky ones, each approach offers new insight, something useful we can weave into the fabric of our selves. There are no finish lines, but there can be pivot points. Moments in time where the gradual work comes together and, AHA! Something new crystalizes.

For me, this trip to the dentist was one of those moments. I didn’t know what I could do until I did it. Now I know it’s there if I need it, and that’s a powerful tool.

MEXICO!!

So, uh, yeah. Turns out I am not resort people.

I was invited by my best and oldest friend to be her plus one at a destination wedding. I wasn’t her first choice, but boyfriend and Spanish speaking friend could’t go. I’ve never been to Mexico before. I don’t love spicy food, or tequila, but I do love travel. For a week long immersive trip, I could learn to.

The wedding party chose a resort, one of those all inclusive joints with unlimited food and poolside drinks, to stay at. Turns out they book out way ahead of time and the first agent the happy couple worked with jerked them around. By the time they freed themselves from contracts and loopholes and started working on their own, many places were booked. They chose a quaint little town some hour or so south of Cancun itself and the wedding party piled on. There weren’t many of us, but we made a cute group, and we all wanted to stay together. For some of us, this was the first and last chance at tropical luxury.

What a fucking joke.

There are some things I hate to cheap out on. I LOVE food. I won’t hesitate to drop two hundred bucks on a really good dinner for me and my favorite book. Glittering wine, rich flavors, a tight menu, all can send me into ecstatic revelries. I try to stick to fairly and ethically made clothing (or second hand) and if I can’t get that, then high quality is non negotiable. I have a soft spot for antique jewelry. And when it comes to experiences: I’m an independent soul. I don’t like huge crowds or noisy places (unless that’s the point like in Times Square or a fireworks show.)

But finishes can go straight into the bowels of hell for all I care. Veneers, false enthusiasm, pretenses, fancy counter tops , overlarge shower stalls, and marketing misrepresentation are among the banes of my existence.

To save money, we spent our first three nights at a condo around the corner from the resort. We arrived a day early, walked around town, found the gelato shop, took a small group tour, sat by our private pool, nestled into our cozy little studio and overall enjoyed our privacy. We got acclimated, we did yoga, we had fresh caught local dishes directly from an open grill, and we made our own sack lunches.

Then we checked out and moved to the all-inclusive resort.

Our nightly rate went from 180 to 600.

We lasted six hours.

Hour one: we checked our bags, upgraded to VIP, and got ourselves a drink by the pool. We were accosted by no fewer than five attendants asking us to sign up for this extra or that before we could just relax.

Hour two: After a Pina colada, aware that our sunscreen got checked with the bags and increasingly disenchanted with our fellow tourists, we explored deserted corridors inside. We found the theater and, music nerds that we are, we made friends with the manager. That was the peak of our experience.

Hour three: our room was ready and we went upstairs. The bottle of tequila and our friendly bellhop were rays of sunshine in an otherwise increasingly unsettling atmosphere.

Hour four: we found some other members of the wedding party on the non-VIP side. The beach was white and sandy, but the gravel they used to build the beach wasn’t soft and silky as I had expected. It required shoes. Several party members indicated they’d be swimming with dolphins soon, an unsavory activity to anyone sympathetic to large mammals trapped in captivity. The tiny cages were visible from our hotel room.

Hour five: noise from construction was far less disturbing than periodic concerted shrieking from the pool area. I hate unidentified noises and from my balcony, it felt like some obscene sunburned water-based ritual kept happening just outside my sight line. The resort’s app said “weird game” was happening in the pool. My general unease moved into the realms of intolerable.

Hour six: I video chatted with sympathetic friends. After expressing my rising unease, discomfort, and dissatisfaction, one friend asked what I stood to lose by leaving. The answer: only money. Inspired to reach out to our host from the previous nights, I felt an immense weight lifted from my chest when he replied “the place is already clean, you can come back whenever you want and have it until Monday.”

I struggled not to wake my friend from her nap to share the news. “We can go back. We get to back to our air bnb.” “What? Are you sure” “Absolutely. I’ve already made the arrangements and we can go back whenever we want.” “Amie, that is amazing news! I thought you liked it here and I’m so glad you don’t! I wasn’t going to tell you, but I cried myself to sleep just now and I’m so glad we’re leaving.”

Hours seven to eleven or so we stayed in the resort, but only because just then, the rest of the wedding party messaged us to come have dinner and drinks. Knowing we could leave at the end of the night and sleep somewhere cozy and familiar made staying a million times easier. When we parted ways that evening, we collected our most immediately necessary items (and the laundry our host agreed to wash for us) and walked our happy little asses back to the condo down the street.

The next three days we came and went at the resort (I barely even tried to get my money back. After some other staff interactions, I had low hopes, and didn’t want to explain to the bride that we had left while the rest of them were stuck.) but we slept and cooked and ate at our private little studio with our private little kitchen and our private little pool. It felt like a personal villa. It was us sized, not some mega hotel built for hundreds of people. We made friends with the neighbor and his dog. The pool was quiet and calm. No one brought me my drinks, but the ones I made for myself were perfectly balanced, not too sweet. The air conditioning cooled us off without feeling like an icebox.

While the quality of the food I think was specifically bad at this resort, the sweetness of the drinks, the crowds, and the overall sense of a lack of control I think are inherent to those all inclusive resorts. I found joy in learning about and shopping at the farmers market. I had a half dozen fresh, juicy mangos all to myself, and my friend (who has a lot of allergies and finds restaurant food hard to navigate) ate at least as many fresh, ripe, creamy avocados. I much preferred my tiny backyard pool with its six or seven guests at it’s busiest to the expanse of fake beach and screeching crowded pool activities. The quirky layout of our studio condo was far more charming than the commercial, standard hotel room, despite it’s third floor balcony. Free tequila is great, but priced out, I’d rather buy my own from the shopping center downtown. And if we’d stayed at the resort the whole time, we would never have found Martin’s gelato shop. It became a nightly tradition to stop by and get sorbet and affogato, chat with the owner, and pet the cats.

Dan Pashman’s podcast The Sporkful isn’t for foodies, it’s for eaters. I feel this motto in every aspect of my life. I don’t give a flying fuck what I’m supposed to like. I am well aware of the ironies and contradictions in my preferences: my favorite clothes are as likely to come from goodwill as American Giant, but never from Gucci*. My favorite jewelry includes diamond studs and rocks I picked up on a hike. My favorite foods include Tillamook cheddar and wheat thins, champagne, Dick’s deluxe burgers, and pate. I’d rather go back to the Herb Farm than the French Laundry. And I’d rather linger by myself on the edge of a mayan ruin, where human interference fades into the jungle, than spend any time lounging in that resort.

I think, like Vegas, I will only ever try again when it’s someone else’s treat. Maybe I chose badly and a different resort would have given me the exclusive, tropical luxury I was promised. Maybe there is a buffet line somewhere on that peninsula that offers fresh locally made tamales and succulent, juicy carnitas. Maybe there is a resort that actually delivers gobs of fresh avocado when asked. I am as open to being wrong as I always was. But maybe I’m just not freaking resort people.

Happy Birthday to me

Good morning, my darling. Beloved reader and ofttimes companion.

How long has it been since I was happy? Suffused with joy for no reason other than I am alive, and life is good. Days? Weeks? Possibly even years.

I am a crier. I inherited it from my mother, though where she got it I don’t know. My grandfather is stoic at best and my grandmother is all love, all light, all the time. I cry when I am afraid, when I am sad, but by far I cry the most often when I am touched by beauty.

I had the incredible privilege yesterday to be present for someone who needed to cry. Men are indoctrinated against vulnerability. Women love their partners to be emotionally vulnerable with them, so this training makes exactly zero sense, but here we are.

And here I am, one of the few people in your life who can bear your fear and sadness free of judgement. I don’t know your mother or your best friend. I couldn’t share your secrets even if I wanted to, and so they are safe here. Your shame, your weakness, your fears… all are safe here and it my joy and my pleasure to hold space for them.

It is also my pride, of which I am not proud. I have been the vulnerable before, but with someone whose joy and pride at being the “safe space” made them unsafe. The experience of crying with someone, on someone, is incredibly private and intimate. That my sadness might bring joy to another makes my flesh crawl.

But one of my favorite mentors is an expert at holding space. The first time we met one on one, she let my mouth run away with me first. For an hour, I spilled detail after detail of what was upsetting me but it only took her one question to break down every careful wall my words had built. For the next hour, I sobbed. She didn’t stop me, or hold me, or try to reason me out of it, she just said “there it is” the way you’d say it to a newborn kitten who found the nipple. Soft. Loving. Joyous without owning it.

I cried like that until I exhausted myself and felt better. We talked solutions to my problem, we have met a few more times over the years, and always with the same structure: I talk, I cry, I feel better. I hope someday to be half as perceptive, half as present, half as thoughtful as she. For now, what I have will do, and I am grateful for it.

Something about today is beautiful. The sun in hidden, I have no work to help me feel productive, nothing really has changed since the second (that’s the last time I had an actual bad day), so why am I so at peace today?

Maybe my efforts are finally starting to pay off. I’ve been exercising daily this year, tracking my moods and habits, journaling frequently, giving myself permission to follow my whims, reading more… something seems to be working, though I don’t know what.

All I know is that, despite setbacks and the vagaries of time, life is pretty damn good.

Happy birthday to me.

Which Are You?

Imagine with me, if you will: you’re going to the grocery store. You have a long list, it’s Friday afternoon, and you’re greeted by an irritatingly full parking lot. You spot an empty space. As you round the corner to pull in, you are greeted with… The Stray Cart. One wheel is popped up onto the curb to keep it from rolling away into traffic but it’s butt is in your way, much as you are now in the way of other shoppers. This onerous chore, already packed into a busy day, just got worse. And why?

Because someone else’s time is more important than yours.

Shopping carts are a privately owned community resource. You won’t be arrested, fined, or even shamed really for leaving your cart in a neighboring parking spot, but putting it back is the right thing to do, a helpful thing to do, and a low effort thing to do. Because of this peculiar combination of features, returning a cart makes an interesting litmus test, dividing people into the majority group: those who default to helping others, and the minority: those who can’t be bothered.

I have always been the kind of person who puts their cart away. As a child shopping with the family, I or my brother took on the task, not even really realizing there was the option not to. As a young adult with small shopping, I left my cart at the door and walked my bags to my car (or all the way home, for that chunk of time broke me’s car was busted). Now, I make it a point of walking my cart, and others if I walk past them, back to where they belong. It has become as much about completing tasks and putting things in order as about helping others.

I think about this every time I go grocery shopping. I think about the people who day in and day out do the little things to make the lives around them easier. Better. I think about the people who choose not to complete this incredibly simple, easy task and I wonder why. I wonder what the rest of their life looks like. I wonder if I have any cart-leavers in my life that I don’t know about. And I feel a little smugness, and a little solidarity, with everyone else walking their carts across the lot and back to the door.