20 years

Twenty years ago on September 11th, I was just getting settled at my desk at work after returning from the trip of a lifetime. I had just spent two weeks exploring jungle caves and Mayan ruins in Belize, and wasn’t quite sure how I was going to re-adjust to my tech support gig after being out in The Actual World for basically the first time as an adult.

As I was signing into my email, my phone rang.

“Are you watching the news?” Becky sounded slightly breathless.

“No, I just got to work, why? What’s going on?”

“Bring up a news site. Something is happening. A plane just hit a skyscraper in New York.”

I pulled up a site and saw a picture of a plane hitting a building, with a little blurb about breaking news, but the internet was a much different place in 2001 and it was actually fairly hard to find much as it was happening. Becky was home and had the news on so she was relaying information to me as it was reported. We watched the second plane hit in as close to real time as was possible at that point.

A couple minutes later, someone down the hall from my office yelled that everyone needed to come watch the news. They had a TV set up and CNN or something was on. It was a small office, only a handful of us. We stood around, fixated on the set, still not understanding what was going on. Cell phones started ringing, then office phones. People wandered off to take calls and then came back, sometimes with wet eyes, sometimes with pale faces.

Our little office in Vermont was a long, long way from Manhattan, but some of my coworkers had family down in that general area, and we were all booked to go to a trade show in the city at the end of October. I had just flown in to JFK on my way home from Belize two days before. The friend I had been travelling with was still there, spending time with other friends for a few days before his flight back to London. They were staying just a few blocks from the towers. We had walked by them one night on our way to dinner before we left for Belize.

Nobody in the office really knew what to do with themselves. Someone said that the local Catholic church was doing mass shortly and several of us decided to go. I don’t think a single one of us was Catholic, but it was more about being with other people and trying to wrap our heads around what was going on.

Mass was surreal. I had never been to a Catholic church before and had zero understanding of what to say or do. I mostly just sat and cried on and off as waves of emotion washed over me. Everyone else was doing basically the same thing, although most of them knew when they should be kneeling, at least. When it was over, my coworkers and I wandered back to the office in a daze. We were greeted with the news that two more planes had been hijacked – one crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside and the other hit the Pentagon.

I don’t remember if we got sent home, if we just left, or if I stayed the whole day. I think I probably went home early. I was still living with my folks at that point. My dad would have been at work still, and I think my mom was still working nights then, so she would have been asleep I guess. I honestly don’t remember a thing about that afternoon or evening at all. It’s just gone. All I remember is being very worried about my friend in the city and not being able to get through to his cell…which was understandable, of course. I know I eventually did get an email from him a day or two later and he said they were all fine, aside from some breathing issues from all the dust in the air, and of course some mental trauma.

After the attack, I remember weeks and weeks of almost every channel we had showing the footage of the planes hitting the towers over and over again. They did finally stop showing the clips where you could see people jumping / falling out of the windows, so that was a small relief, but still. Looking away felt like dishonoring those people in some way, I think…so we just kept watching and watching. Trying to see where it all went wrong, maybe. But it’s pretty hard to learn from mistakes when a country can’t admit that it actually made any.

We did end up going to the trade show at the end of October. My mom was worried. She kept asking what if it happened again while I was there? All I could do was shrug and, with a wisdom well beyond what my 21 years should have afforded me (and which I since have seem to lost the vast majority of), say “life has to go on”.

The venue and our hotel were a good three miles or so from the footprint of the towers. One night as we were getting into the elevator to head back up to our rooms, a guy in a hard hat and orange vest waved at us to hold the door for him. He was maybe 25 feet further down the lobby and walking very slowly. When he got closer, we saw that he was absolutely caked with dust and dirt. When he got into the elevator he apologized for making us wait.

“I would have walked faster but I’m kind of beat,” he said half-jokingly.

“Are you working down there? Where…it happened?” one of my coworkers asked.

He nodded, keeping his eyes trained studiously on the ground. My coworker silently put out his hand toward the dusty guy, who reached out and shook it with a quiet “thanks”. It was a long, quiet ride up to the 20th floor where my group were staying. When we got off the elevator, we turned back to wish the guy good luck but he was leaning back against the wall of the elevator, eyes closed, chin tipped like he had nodded off. We didn’t disturb him.

I hate what the anniversary of 9/11 has become. I hate that it has been co-opted by the ‘Murica crowd with their These Colors Don’t Run t-shirts and their Terrorist Hunting Permit bumper stickers and their racism. I hate that they refuse to learn history, to understand context, to grasp nuance. I hate that they can’t see that this cycle will continue to play out over and over again because this country keeps making the same mistakes, keeps voting for the same wrong-headed politicians pushing the same wrong-headed ideas. I hate that we can’t seem to find a way to honor the lives of all the people that died in the attacks and the aftermath without turning it into some kind of garish, jingoistic, self-masturbatory political spectacle. Those were real people, with real families, real lives. They deserve better than some bullshit parade full of rednecks waving Don’t Tread On Me flags. They deserve better than a country that continues to vehemently deny it bears any responsibility in the way the world is crumbling around us.

But life has to go on.

sharks

Last night I had a dream that I was on a rock in the middle of a huge body of water.

Not an island, but just literally a bare rock. Big enough to stand up and walk around a little bit…probably like 10ft by 8ft, tops.

There were other similar rocks around in the water, and I had this deep understanding that I really needed to get off my particular rock and on to the other ones if I wanted to live. But the other rocks were all just far enough away from mine that I’d have to get into the water and swim to between them, and the water was so, so dark and murky, and seemed incredibly deep (swimming in deep water has been a life-long fear of mine, even in clear water where I can see the bottom).

I kept thinking I could see sharks and other scary things zooming around under the water out of the corner of my eye. The water felt very very unsafe to get into even though I understood that, if I didn’t get in and get to the next rock, I’d eventually die there on my rock.

I’d love to be able to say that I mustered up the courage and jumped into the water, got to the next rock and the next, and on to better things…but I didn’t. I just sat there being petrified until the dream changed to something else.

And I’m not sure anyone could come up with a more accurate-feeling metaphor for my life, to be honest.

The pandemic has taken so much from so many people. Loved ones, jobs, homes, schooling, friends lost to disagreements over public health policies that have no damned business being politicized and yet continue to be. So, so much. And I have been so incredibly lucky: my job immediately and smoothly transitioned to fully remote and my employer has no interest in forcing anyone back into the office, and my husband’s job takes swift and proactive measures to keep everyone as safe as possible. Hubs and I were able to get vaccinations relatively quickly and easily. Neither of us had bad side effects from the vaccination. Neither of us has caught the virus so far (although that’s not fully luck as we are very, very careful). My folks got fully vaccinated and are conducting themselves relatively responsibly despite their having quaffed their fair share of the right’s thoroughly tainted Kool-Aid. Almost all of our friends and extended family have been pro-vaccine, pro-mask, pro-safety, pro-the-greater-good.

I have very, very little to complain about.

And it’s not that I’m complaining, exactly. It’s more of a…reality check? A personal “coming to Jesus” thing, but in slow motion, and without actually involving Jesus because I’m not Christian?

Basically what I’m trying to get at is that the pandemic has been showing me a lot of things that I should be grateful for, but it’s also been shining a big-ass spotlight on some themes in my life that I had not been previously picking up on. And that’s something to be grateful for, too…the opportunity to do better for myself. And having these realizations while I’m still relatively young means I’ve theoretically got time to work on things.

But I’m on that rock, you see. And the next rock is just over there, but there’s so much deep, dark water in between. And every time I turn my head I’m pretty sure I see a shark…

the mechanic

A few weeks ago…ok, probably a month ago? I’m bad with how time works. My brain reads hours as minutes and weeks as days more often than not.

Let me start over.

A month or so ago, I’m pulling out of my driveway when my neighbor flags me down. Our individual driveways merge into one small road that goes out to the main road, so we see each others’ comings and goings fairly regularly. I roll down my car window and smile.

“Hi there! What’s up?”

“Did’ya know your tail lights are out?” His voice is gravelly from years of heavy smoking. He’s got about four visible teeth in his mouth, presumably due to the same.

“Oh no, are they?” I had no idea. I’m never in back of the car when it’s running, let alone braking.

“Both of ’em. The one in your back window is working, but it’s small. Better get those fixed before you get hit,” he says sternly.

“You bet. Thanks for the heads-up,” I say. We pull away and continue along down the drive.

Of course I instantly forget about the tail lights.

A week or so later, he flags me down again, this time headed into our driveway.

“Tail lights still out,” he mutters. His rheumy blue eyes betray that he’s more disappointed than he sounds. And he sounds pretty disappointed.

“I know it, I meant to stop in at AutoZone and get them fixed but I’ve been busy, and then I forgot, and…you know how it goes. But it’s on the list, I promise.”

He nods and waves me along. As we pull up to park, I say to my husband, “You watch. One of these days he’s going to get sick of my shit, come fix those tail lights, and not even tell us”. We chuckle and don’t think much more of it.

This afternoon I’m sitting here working and my cell phone rings. It comes up with the neighbor’s name so I answer it.

“Hello?”

“Hello. Your keys in your car?”

“Uhh, no. Why?”

“I was gonna come over and fix those tail lights.”

“Oh, I’ve got an appointment at the garage next week, I was going to have them do it then.”

“Not safe to drive around without ’em. I’ve got the bulbs and the tools. I’ll come do it for you real quick.” And then he hangs up.

Well. No sense arguing, I guess.

He’s maybe 15 years older than me, but he looks much older. Decades of heavy drink and smoke will do that to a body. He recently had part of his pancreas and stomach removed, spent six weeks in hospital, and was out mowing the lawn in ten-minute bursts within a week of coming home. Once he was feeling better and moving around more easily, he started in on trimming back the limbs along the shared part of the driveway because he wants to have it widened and re-graveled this fall. His flower garden is extensive and immaculate. The man truly doesn’t know how to be idle.

While he’s here fixing my tail lights, he notices that my tires were really worn down. I say I was kind of putting off replacing them because I’ll need to buy snow tires soon enough anyway and I don’t really want the expense of buying two sets at once. He leans down, brushes the dirt off the sidewall of a tire and reads out the size.

“195/65 R15. I think I have a set of used ones in that size at the shop.”

“Oh! That would be great, I’d be happy to buy them off you.”

“Used. They wouldn’t cost you anything. You couldn’t run them a whole season, you’d still have to buy a new set come spring. But they’d get you through inspection and last you ’til you get your snows put on.”

“Ok, well…let me know, I guess. My inspection appointment is Thursday.”

He nods slowly, then starts walking down the driveway, back toward his house.

“Hey, what do I owe you?”

He turns his head halfway back over his shoulder as he continues walking.

“Nothin’. It was just a couple lightbulbs. See ya.”

So I guess the moral of the story is, if you’re forgetful and not good at car maintenance, get yourself a mechanic neighbor with a lack of boundaries and a generous heart.

six degrees

There’s a route I drive twice a day, pretty much every weekday. I drove it regularly many years ago, then I switched jobs and didn’t have to drive it for like ten years. Then my husband switched jobs and we had to drive it occasionally but usually went a different route. THEN we bought a house south of the towns he and I work in and we started driving the route literally every day. Then the pandemic hit and I started working from home but my husband is still learning to drive so he doesn’t take the car by himself, so I am still driving (or riding, if he’s driving) this route twice a day, pretty much every weekday.

It just occurred to me right now as I type that this information would probably be stalking GOLD if someone were motivated to hunt me down. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s not going to become an issue. If I somehow end up getting famous and stalk-worthy at some point, I’m going to need one of the six of you that actually read my posts to remind me to come take this one down, ok? Ok.

So, on this route that I drive twice a day, pretty much every weekday, there’s several traffic lights. One stops at a highway off/on ramp, one stops at the entrance to a local high school, one stops near a bunch of sprawling manufacturing type buildings, and one stops at a cross-street that comes down from between the high school and a big medical clinic. That street passes in between two financial institutions on its way to the intersection. Those two financial institutions are where our story takes place. Sort of. Mostly it takes place in my head, but…you know.

One of the financial institutions is a credit union. The other is a small branch of a big regional bank. Both these places have big light-up signs with digital read-outs that flash back and forth between the time and the temperature. As an aside, why is this a service that banks specifically feel is important to provide? You never see a gas station or a McDonalds or a chiropractor’s sign flashing up the time and temperature in 2-foot-tall digital characters. Why have financial institutions taken up that mantle? Was it some sort of package deal that came along with the mini calendars banks give out every winter? Was the sales pitch to early bankers something like “here’s the thing: you give them a calendar to take home so they know what day it is, but if they wanna know the time or what the temperature is, they’re gonna have to come to…you guessed it! YOUR BANK!” These are fully rhetorical questions, by the way. I very much do not want you to email me the history of American banking. I know that of the six of you reading, at least three are unrelenting pedants, so I just want to make sure I’m very clear on that.

Get to the fucking point, Shelby. Jesus.

So these banks are right across from each other, separated by just a narrow two-lane side street. They both have the digital signs. The clocks on both digital signs are always the same.

But the temperature is not.

And it’s not just a degree or two of difference. You know, something you could attribute to maybe a passing breeze or a rogue shadow. No. The temperatures are a full SIX DEGREES different. And it’s not just an occasional thing. The one on the south side of the street is always six degrees colder than the one on the north side. I have driven by these banks, on average, 500 times a year (twice a day X 5 days a week X 50 weeks per year to account for vacations and whatever), for at least the last two years. That’s at least 1000 trips past these signs just in the last two years. Do I notice them every single time we drive through there? No. But every time I DO notice them, which is at least several times a week, they are ALWAYS six degrees apart.

And it bothers me. Clearly.

Now, rationally I know that it’s probably just due to difference in the sensitivity and/or location of the sensors. I have a rough grasp of science and I can accept that. What I have a harder time accepting is that likely the people who work in both of those buildings simply don’t care about this difference. They have probably noticed and just accepted the fact that one thermometer, less than 50 yards away from another, is reading a FULL SIX DEGREES different. I bet it doesn’t make their teeth itchy. They may, in fact…not even notice! I am mystified by this.

Instead of letting it gnaw at me that the temperatures are six degrees different for no good reason other than human ambivalence and/or possible electronic malfunction, I’ve made a decision: I am choosing to believe that the six degree difference is due in fact to a small furry rodent that has found its way into the space that holds the temperature sensor, and made itself a lovely cozy home there. Maybe it’s a clever red squirrel with bright eyes and a nice big cache of acorns. Maybe it’s a whole big family of tiny voles who each raise the temperature near the sensor just part of one single degree because they’re so wee. Maybe a possum squeezed its trash-smelling, tick-eating, screaming-at-their-own-ass heart of gold in next to the sensor for a long winter’s nap. Who knows.

All I’m saying is, this is how I’m coping with it. Things feel a little easier to handle if you can come up with a reason for them. Which is how we ended up with religion, of course, and look how THAT turned out. Hey, maybe my calling in life is to start a possum cult. Our central rituals could be going around to local banks to calibrate the thermometers on their digital signs, and screaming at our own asses because we exist.

garden grace

Peace has always been hard to come by for me, and even more-so lately. Inside my head is forever a hot mess but the threat of the virus, the carelessness and abject stupidity of our government and its supporters, the constant march of time despite being stuck in this strange wormhole where we never seem to leave the house anymore and where work has become home has become workhomework, plus a whole bunch of other stuff…
…it’s been overwhelming to say the least.
It’s raining today, but not hard. Just a slow, soft, frankly kind of half-assed rain where the sun is partially out a lot of the time.
I went outside at one point mid-morning to get something out of the car. Stepping out into the cool, humid air, I expected to be swarmed with mosquitoes immediately (move to the woods, they said. It will be fun, they said). But, to my surprise, between the slight breath of breeze and the slow drip of rain, the mozzies weren’t chancing it.
Realizing this rare gift for what it was sent me back inside to get my gloves and pruners. I spent the next 45 minutes working my way through the garden: deadheading the big-leaf rhododendron and azalea, pruning back the small-leaf rhododendron, clipping dead wood and sassy bits of yellow loosestrife from where it had insistently emerged in the middle of hydrangea bushes, and chasing down the origins of some intrusive blackberry brambles (don’t worry, I kept plenty). I got to visit with my little garter snake friend who lives under a partially propped up brick near the damp tangled shade beneath the rhododendron.
Chipmunks chittered and birds hollered. Something with some girth to it slowly crunched along through the underbrush but I couldn’t get my eye on it to get an ID.
The whole time I was out there, I just WAS.
I was damp from rain.
I was stretching to reach branches and stooping to pull weeds.
I was moving with quiet and purpose, not having to think about every little thing I was doing or what I was missing inside or who wanted something from me.
And somewhere in the midst of all that, I found some much-needed, if fleeting, peace.

privilege

This is not a funny jokey ha-ha lol-times post, and I am not apologizing for it. It’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to. Kthanksbye.

I just finished watching this week’s episode of Finding Your Roots and I have a lot of feels. I’m a genealogy nerd and a sucker for life stories so the show tends to be my jam anyway…but the episodes where he traces the family trees of African Americans always really get to me. It’s a similar story almost every time: the tree gets to a certain point and then just stops because you inevitably get to a time when this person’s ancestors were no longer recorded in census data because they were basically considered livestock.

If you’re white, REALLY think about that for a minute. Think about what it might feel like to be told that your great-great-great grandparents were owned by someone else. OWNED. Someone looked at a fellow human being, passed judgement on their worth, placed a price on them, and exchanged them for currency. Imagine looking at another living, breathing, feeling, human being…and somehow constructing the belief in your head that you are so superior to them that you could BUY and SELL them, let alone force them to do your bidding, rape them, beat them, and keep them in appalling conditions. And this was the norm for centuries.

It’s deeply uncomfortable to think about these things, and that’s why so many people just…don’t. Being uncomfortable isn’t fun. It doesn’t give you a good story to tell, a cute meme, or a nice photo for Instagram. But discomfort is an excellent teacher. Lessons learned through a filter of discomfort are often the most impactful ones.

My ancestors were very likely not slave owners. I could tell myself a nice story about how it’s because they were all good people who knew right from wrong and valued every human life…but the hard truth is that likely a lot of it was down to the fact that most of them were dirt poor their whole lives themselves and buying slaves for their farms just plain wasn’t an option available to them. Even so, I have internalized racial biases inherited simply by so many generations of my ancestors being white. Even as a dirt-farmer in rural Vermont in the 1800’s, being white was still a shit-load easier than being anything other than white, and I have directly benefited from that privilege. I continue to benefit on a daily basis from a system filled with those same internalized racial biases. Life is just plain easier in many countries in this world if your skin is white.

I’m not waxing about any of this to earn any sort of credit or prove any self-righteous point. It just struck me how uncomfortable and ashamed I felt while hearing the stories of these peoples’ enslaved ancestors, and rather than run away from the discomfort, I decided to sit with it, to turn it over and look underneath it for a bit. Acknowledging to myself that I have and will continue to benefit from white privilege isn’t that difficult for me – I’ve felt it since long before I had the catch-phrase to define it. What is more difficult for me, and what I find myself subsequently leaning into tonight as I write this; is admitting it, fully and without couching, to anyone who chooses to read it. But I refuse to keep choosing my own comfort, and the comfort of those who I know don’t understand or agree with me, over the truth. This is the VERY least I can do as a white person in this fractured, racist world…but it’s all I’ve got for tonight.

it came from the closet

Have you ever been cleaning out your closet (or, let’s say, putting away giant piles of laundry that may have accumulated on the guest room bed ) and found a zip up hoodie that you hadn’t seen in maybe years and you can’t imagine why the hoodie got taken out of regular rotation because it’s not stained up or damaged in any way and is a totally acceptable color and seems really comfy so you run it through the wash and start wearing it again only to discover halfway through the second wearing that this is actually the zip up hoodie that refuses to stay zipped because the zipper is weirdly heavy in relation to the fabric of the hoodie and so the zipper keeps just working its way down every time you move and it all sort of starts coming back to you why you banished the zip up hoodie to the back of the closet (or the bottom of the laundry pile) to begin with?

This is not a metaphor. I am currently wearing that hoodie. This is the third time I’ve put it on since I washed it and I now know FULL WELL what it is capable of, but it has weaseled its way back into the rotation and now it will take an act of Congress (or the acquisition of more new clothing, which is similarly expensive and time consuming) for it to be banished back to the dark depths of the closet from whence it came.

That’s basically all that has happened in the two months since I last posted. That and homework for this business law class I’m taking, because what I definitely needed in my life was more reasons to sit in front of a laptop staring at a blank page and hating myself for being unable to just…start. I mean, hating is a harsh term, I guess. It’s more like a loathing. Loathing is a step down from hating, right? The internet says they’re synonyms but I’ve decided that’s fake news.

img_20191108_095858249

The antagonist of our story

why do my neighbors yell so much?

– They are trying to compete with my dog for the coveted title of Yappiest Yapface of 2019.

– Their apartment is filled with spiders and they react to spiders the same way I do: yelling until someone comes and rescues me the spider.

– They believe that he who prays loudest gets the most attention from Imaginary Sky Daddy.

– They’re actually a bunch of Siamese cats inhabiting human bodies, and it’s always ten minutes past feeding time.

– They were brought up in a cave behind a giant, roaring waterfall and had to yell everything just to be heard. The habit stuck.

– They have Fatal Ear Freezing Syndrome and have to wear ear protection at all times to keep from dying of the dreaded Freeze-Ear.

– They’re professional yodelers. Really bad ones.

– Their family hobby is acting out that popular meme of the Orange County Choppers guys yelling at each other.

– They all have terrible spatial awareness and keep stubbing their toes on every corner and piece of furniture they come near.

– Their carpet is full of tacks.

– They’re from Massachusetts and they’re also drunk a lot (not that people from Massachusetts are any more predisposed to getting drunk than anyone from anywhere else in New England (there’s not much to do here). But, in my experience, many people from Massachusetts DO seem predisposed to high levels of…personal loudness. NOT ALL, but many).

ocmeme

I didn’t make this meme, but I have lived this too many times to count.

chasing ghosts

(Let’s just pretend I haven’t posted in six months, mmkay? Mmkay.)

I believe in ghosts. Living things are made of energy and I believe some of that energy can cling to places, objects, and even people. As long as you invest your own energy into carrying the memory of someone, they’re living on in you, even if only a tiny bit.

We’re all haunted, for better or worse, by the people we choose to put energy into remembering, then. I am haunted by my Nana on the daily – whether by seeing a bird or flower she liked, smelling a scent that I associate with her, or thinking of a specific time I was with her. My paternal grandmother, Marion, haunts me often by way of my love for fiber arts and textiles. She was an amazing knitter and seamstress, and had aspirations in her early days of becoming a fashion designer. When I see a beautifully made piece of clothing or I sit down to knit for a while, her energy is there in my hands, if not my head, making me itch to create.

Can you be haunted by someone you’ve never met, though? Someone you have no memories of to feed your own energy into? I think in some cases, yes. Maybe you visit a place where someone’s energy is still clinging for whatever reason, like in a classic ghost story of a grisly death or unrequited love, where someone’s spirit can’t leave. Their energy might not even be trapped there due to bad circumstances – maybe it was a place that person loved so deeply or made it so much their own that they willed part of themselves to stay there long after their body had left. Perhaps there’s an item that was so important to someone that it ended up absorbing some of their energy. Whether a cherished object or a utilitarian one, the things we surround ourselves with and use on a daily basis can certainly carry echoes of us far into the future, I believe.

If you’ve gotten this far you’re probably wondering why I’m even blathering on about this woo shit. It’s not my normal LOL-fest, after all (please read that with the intended sarcasm. On no plane of existence would I have the audacity to judge my own writing an actual LOL-fest. Apparently I DO exist in a space where I refer to things as LOL-fests now, though? I’m not sure I’m ok with that, but I’m quickly sliding headlong into a black hole of parenthetical digression and I need to back away from that particular event horizon before it sucks me in and disintegrates me. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries about space lately, can you tell?).

Where was I? Oh yes, explaining why I’m talking about ghosty woo things.

So, the reason I bring all this up is that I’m being haunted. The spirit of one of my great-great-grandfathers, Harlan Godfrey, has been all up in my grill for quite some time now.

I’ve always been really interested in old stuff. I was never really great in history class in school because that involved a lot of memorizing names and dates, which put me right to sleep. But old STUFF? Stuff you can hold in your hands, or at least see in the context of the time in which it was created / used? That’s always been my jam. I wanted to be a paleontologist, then an archaeologist, for most of my childhood. Eventually I figured out that both professions a) spend a lot of time doing very physical work in some pretty inhospitable places (or worse, are in academia), and b) are not known for making big bucks. Or any bucks, really. Being physically uncomfortable and being poor have both always been pretty high on my Do Not Want list, so I eventually moved on to other dreams (none of which I have actually achieved either, but at least I learned to be more realistic? That’s a useful skill, surely). My love of old stuff and old stories never really went away, though. Eventually I started channeling it into genealogy. This was especially satisfying to me because it combined my love of old stuff with my ridiculously strong life-long urge to know other people’s business.

For a long time my genealogy fixes came from my Nana. She had lots of old pictures, lists of names and birth dates, and she knew where most of the bodies were buried. Literally. Her husband, my Bampa, was long gone at that point – he died when I was 11 – but she had stayed in close touch with that side of the family and had a lot of knowledge of their ancestry as well. My mom has always been interested in family history too, and with the advent of sites like Ancestry, being able to build an actual family tree and show her all kinds of cool stuff like census records and draft cards got her sort of sucked into my project as well. We ended up going to a family reunion together a few summers ago – NOT something that either of us would normally volunteer for, as we’re both card-carrying introverts – but several very elderly family members were going to be there and we were interested in seeing if they could confirm some details of some people for us. At the reunion my mom’s aunt Jan (my grandfather’s youngest sister) mentioned that she had some books I might be interested in, and that she’d get them to me eventually.

The following summer, Jan showed up one day with a smallish clear plastic tote bag – the kind that gift sets of shampoo and body wash come in. Rather than bottles, it was filled with small books.

“Here’s something to get you started. I want these back eventually, so please be careful with them,” she said, handing them over. I pulled out the first little book, smaller than most peoples’ cell phones today, and flipped open the cover.

‘Diary of Harlan F. Godfrey, 1910’

I went home that afternoon and lost at least three hours reading. The entries are all entirely utilitarian. Harlan was a subsistence farmer in turn-of-the-century Vermont. He used his diaries to keep track of weather, which heifers were bred and which ones were sold, when he bought feed and supplies and how much he paid for them, etc. Not exactly riveting reading for most people, but for whatever reason, I was hooked. I read through all the diaries over the space of a few days, then proceeded to bend the ear of every family member who showed even the remotest inkling of interest about them.

Jan’s words kept bouncing around in my head – “I want these back eventually”. But…but what if I some day had a burning need to know how much Harlan had paid for a hogshead of cracked corn at Chase’s store in Bradford in September of 1910? She wanted the books back, but I couldn’t handle the idea of losing that resource. I needed to preserve my hoard of the most banal treasure imaginable. So I decided to do the only reasonable thing, given the situation:

I decided to transcribe it. All six books worth.

It should be noted that, like with most plans I come up with, I decided I was going to do it and then immediately started four other things, which lead to three further projects, which in turn brought on an avalanche of roughly 17.6 million additional tasks. Before I knew it, a year had gone by. And then another one. That is 100% how I’ve made to to age 39, by the way. I swear the last time I looked, I was 27. This whole ‘time compressing as you age’ thing is pretty fucked, especially if your brain was pre-wired to have no real concept of time passing like mine is.

Anyway. Jan still hadn’t asked for the books back a couple weeks ago when the second anniversary of me having them whizzed past, but I know Jan and she is as dragon-esque with her hoard of precious old things as I am, so I know she won’t forget and I won’t be able to put her off for long once she decides she wants the books back.

So, last Friday when I had something else I really needed to be doing and thus was fair gagging for a procrastinatory escape hatch, I pulled up a Google doc, cracked open the first diary, and started transcribing. It’s going faster than I originally figured it would – it takes me about 30 minutes to get through a month of entries, provided I don’t run into any super scrawly bits that I have to try to decipher. Harlan’s penmanship was pretty decent but he wrote with a pencil, the point of which wears down periodically, making things harder and harder to read…to the point where I’ll find myself muttering ‘sharpen your god damned pencil, Gramps’ like he could somehow hear me from 110 years in the past. His grammar is also pretty suspect, which can be kind of amusing at times. He wrote very much how he would have spoken (must be genetic?), so there are entries like “Done choars this F”, meaning he did the chores this forenoon, and “drawed wood all day”, meaning not that he’s drawing pictures of wood but that he’s dragging it out of the forest with his horses. My favorite is that, almost every Sunday, his entry is “here to home”. Sometimes it’s accompanied by notes of people having visited that day, but mostly it’s just that one simple statement that sounds so…content. Like he’s taking a well-earned day off after a week of hard work. I mean, for all I know he spent his Sundays beating his kids and kicking the chickens…but I’d find it quite surprising if that were the case.

What used to be Harlan’s farm, and then his son Floyd (my great-grandfather)’s farm, is about a ten minute ride from where I live. It’s a spot I have been inexplicably drawn to for many years – since way before I knew which property my ancestors had owned, since before I stopped to look at the gravestones in the little cemetery tucked up on the side hill and noticed many names I recognized from my family tree. All that energy, all that love of place that three or four generations of my ancestors worked into the side of that hill… it’s like someone strikes a kind of cosmic tuning fork and the bits of those people that live on in my blood start singing that haunting note and I have to go back to harmonize for a little while.

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Mmm, so old. Very book.

shine on

I made some cupcakes for work this week. They’re Valentines themed. Mostly it was all an excuse to teach myself how to make Swiss buttercream and play around with piping, if I’m honest. There was very little altruism toward my coworkers involved. It was more a case of “I will make these pretty things and give them to people, then enjoy them telling me how pretty they are”. And my therapist would tell me that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that motive, but admitting that was my motivation makes me feel like at least six different flavors of Awful Human Being.

But I digress.

So I made these cupcakes. Aren’t they pretty?

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Delicious emulsified sugar and fat

You can’t see it so well in the picture but the actual cake part is colored – it has swirls of white, pink and red. In order to get a true red cake batter, I had to use A LOT of red food coloring. The pink in the cake is pretty bright so that used a fair amount as well. There was only a little bit in the frosting, but still…all told, definitely a lot of artificial coloring going on.

One of the core tenets of baking is that you should check the finished product for poison by eating some of whatever you made. I mean, you don’t HAVE to, I guess…but then how would you know if your coworkers are actually enjoying the baked goods or just choking them down to be polite? Short of taking Susan aside and asking her if she was really being sincere when she said your buttercream was delicious, you have no way of knowing. So it’s a good idea to test the finished product and KNOW that it’s delicious, no matter what face Susan makes when she bites into it.

Point being, I ran a BUNCH of tests on the finished cupcakes yesterday, which means I consumed rather a large amount of red food dye.

You may be starting to suspect where this is going and you’re right, but stay with me. You might as well, you’ve come this far.

This morning my poop was predictably quite pink. Most food dyes end up turning your dookie green, but red stays pretty red through digestion. This is exactly why, when you prep for a colonoscopy, they tell you not to have anything with red food coloring in it for a few days before the test. The inside of your colon can get stained by the food dye and then the doctors have a hard time figuring out if the redness is due to disease or just somebody being overzealous about, say, eating Valentines cupcakes.

ANYWHO.

I have this one coworker who really likes baked goods. Honestly, she just likes free food in general, but she REALLY likes baked goods and has been known to consume quite a lot of whatever anybody brings in. Which, zero judgement here, but when she and another coworker were in my office and she was motoring through her second cupcake and talking about getting a third, it occurred to me that she probably didn’t realize just how much food dye was in them.

So of course I brought it up. Because that’s a reasonable thing to talk with your coworkers about, right? I mean, she engaged instead of running away or saying anything along the lines of “hey let’s not talk about poop”, so I don’t feel like I can be FULLY blamed. I may have also brought up the fact that you can make your poop sparkle by eating lots of edible food glitter (a theory I have tested and proven). It’s not like it was a completely unrelated subject at that point, after all.

One coworker, the cupcake fiend, thought it was pretty fantastic and vowed to go buy some edible food glitter to impress her kid and husband with in the near future.

The other coworker, who had been not exactly inching away but definitely leaning slowly further and further out the office door toward the hallway for the whole conversation, wore a look somewhere between bemusement and resignation as she examined her now empty cupcake wrapper.

I have a feeling she probably didn’t go back for seconds.

Oh well. Can’t win ’em all.