Monday, January 29, 2007

Laughing Stock

This evening I took a walk on Union Road in the bitter dusk, despite that nagging sore throat, and was very glad I did, even though I won't be able to feel my cheeks for days. I haven't walked out there since the weather got cold and I retired indoors to the rowing machine and the treadmill and my sentimental films.

The east parking lot at the Machine Shop is done, the landscaping too (poor frail saplings shivering through winter). Someone was doing some work in the Roundhouse tonight and they flushed a pair of nervous pigeons out just as I walked by. They flew up into the pink sky and I thought how much I like the combination of gray and pink when it's done right.

I hardly heard the light mix on my iPod- Jack Johnson, Royal Crown Revue, Norah Jones- as I passed Union Tank and found the same sounds and smells from summer evenings, but mixed with the iron tang of winter instead of the sage-and-dust bouquet of July. The U.P. tracks were lined with circus-colored freight cars: bright reds and mellow, buttery yellows, faded royal blues and mint greens.

I thought about turning back when my lips went numb but didn't and was rewarded with a fiery sunset. I didn't even care that my camera was in my other coat. You've seen enough of those.

One of my cats really likes licking a glob of petroleum jelly, our hairball remedy of choice, off my finger a few times a week. The other cat does not. Instead I have to smoosh the glob into the fur on the back of her paw, which she then licks off and seems to really enjoy. But tonight when I set her down, she shot off into the other room shaking her paw- like she always does, just flipping it like mad- and shot back towards me as soon as she reached the far wall. Not enough time to have licked the glob off, and yet, sure enough, it was gone. I looked but couldn't find it tonight. I'm sure I will sometime. It won't be pretty.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Empty Like a Pocket

In the midst of an existential crisis, I went skating. I saw the glimmer of the icy pond on my way home after dark and thought, that's where I need to be right now. It was 26 degrees.

I am nothing special in skates- no Olympic hopeful- but I can move smoothly and swiftly and spin gracefully into abrupt stops, jagged steel toe snagging the ice. I can't tell from the memory how old I was when Mom strapped a tiny pair of double-bladed skates on my feet and helped me totter around on the glassy surface.

Tonight the motion became familiar almost immediately, and I learned to ignore the ominous popping of the raw ice and avoid the bubbled, cratered rim and a long faultline too pronounced to skim over by lifting my toes. I gave my trust to the granite surface- sparkling chips like mica flashing in the floodlights- and the pond beneath, buoying that thick, frozen skin on its shoulders. I picked up speed, leaning farther forward, employing my own weight to increase the economy of each stroke. I knew what it would feel like to fall. I went faster.

I master life's hardest lessons like the star pupil I am. I am not afraid to take chances, and I frequently make sacrifices in the name of self-improvement. In many ways I've made a hobby of reinventing myself. And I wonder what the odds are in this life that we find someone who truly understands what we are trying to do.

I think best on my feet. Speeding over the ice, words that deserved to be written swarmed up in my head like bees. I knew I'd forget half of them before I got home, but I kept making larger circles. I got too warm and took the outer shell of my coat off, left it on the snow bank at the edge of the pond. I put my hands in my pockets and kept skating. No one came to bother me, and trains leisurely passed each other on the tracks two hundred yards away. Just a few short months ago I watched a pair of beavers swim past the bow of my kayak on that very pond. I wondered where they went to hibernate.

I can already tell where I'll be sore tomorrow, all those unaccustomed muscles that not even my rowing machine taxes, and some days it feels like it's taxing everything. When I got off the ice and into my snow boots I felt earthbound and ungraceful, stomping to the car after all that gliding.

I came to no conclusions, but it felt good to be voluntarily cold. It felt good to be out, after two weeks of bitter temperatures that precluded every snowshoeing excursion I planned. Bud and Jeff keep talking about a wonderful thing they call the January Thaw. I hope it comes along soon- even if it means no more skating for a while.

Ice and Snow

Friday, January 19, 2007

Beyond the Pale

I do not have AIDS.

I know this because I got tested this summer, even though statistically and demographically, the odds that I would ever contract H.I.V. are very low. Still, during the time I waited for the results- and I didn’t get back to the clinic for almost two months for various reasons, but mostly forgetfulness- I would occasionally experience a sudden, temporary paralysis whenever the possibility crossed my mind.

The plagues of old were insidious, true, sneaking from hand to hand, cheek to cheek, and slipping through rudimentary public water systems. Typhoid, hepatitis and E. coli boiled in shallow wells and rats in the reeking cities carried bubonic Yersinia pestis across indefensible thresholds. But there's something unspeakably more horrifying about a communicable virus that lurks, incubated in our own blood.

But now that I know I am safe, I am unwilling to let anything compromise that comfort. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypothermia, a slip on a banana peel- these causes de la mort I can't control. That devious virus I can. And there is some comfort in that.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Secession of Parks and Recreation: A Cautionary Tale

Many years ago, before I came to live in this enchanting little town, the Parks and Recreation service was a City department, financed and supervised by the municipality. For some reason, at some point, a Parks and Recreation District was formed, and that entity eventually came to be responsible for the City cemetery, golf course, and a community recreation center that is the base of their operations. They have a separate shop, separate equipment, and separate payroll system from the City’s, despite the fact that the City provides them with salary reimbursement for all employees and an operating budget, funded by the taxpayers, which covers the year-round maintenance costs of Evanston’s many parks, the recreation center, the golf course, and the cemetery.

I could complain about the swampy state of the parks during the summer months, when the Parks and Rec. staff so overzealously waters the grass without regard to citizen use, turf management, or reasonable, conservatory watering methods, including a sensible watering schedule. Sometimes they water all day, even during the hottest part of the day when up to 50% of water applied to the grassy surfaces evaporates.

But I’m not here to complain about that. I’m here to whine about the women’s locker room.

The recreation center is in no way a non-profit facility. In fact, they charge fees equal to or exceeding those of any other fitness club to which I have belonged, including Powerhouse Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and 24-Hour Fitness.

The women’s locker room features a sagging ceiling with peeling paint, bent and graffiti-spattered lockers, cheap PVC pipe curtain rods that replaced a previous system that has never been removed and makes for a repugnant eyesore, its empty hooks rusting in the steam. The vinyl shower curtains themselves do not cover the entire opening of each stall, and many are torn and stained. One even features a large square hole, as if someone appropriated it to upholster something at home, or maybe that was the cheapest, easiest way to remove some graffiti.

The wooden benches in most stalls have come unbolted from the wall, hanging dejectedly and sending any items unwittingly placed there sliding to the floor. The wood itself is warped and welted and green with mildew. The drains are clogged with hair and bath products, and the scratched and dented walls of the stalls sport oily globs of soap, lotion, shampoo and conditioner that often linger for weeks before the janitorial staff comes around (yes, they do have a janitorial staff, and no, they don't have to squeegee the gigantic mirror on the wall by the hot tub- the teen lifeguards do that for them). The grout between the tiles is stained with mildew and the mirrors are usually streaked, and I can't begin to describe the sauna.

I suppose this says a lot about the way some of the female patrons treat the facility, but I think the condition of the facility has far more to do with how much of the revenue from the fees collected from those patrons goes to support the municipal golf course. Taxpayer money from the City coffers paid for the private clubhouse the golf club now leases from the City. This seems to have set the precedent for a series of financial abuses and imbalances that no City official has been willing- or able- to end. In fact, Parks and Recreation seems to answer to no higher authority at all.

If I didn’t think there would be repercussions, I’d send this to the editor of the local wastepaper, the Herald (which reportedly does not publish uncredited letters). But as a City employee, I’m sure I’d catch hell. So you get to hear it, and I get to go to the recreation center twice a year to remind myself why I quit going in the first place. Now, if you'll please excuse me while I go sanitize every square inch of myself...

Saturday, January 13, 2007


Friday, January 12, 2007

Apocalypse Now

It began as I arrived to work at the water plant yesterday morning, a lovely pinch of glitter flitting sparsely from a black dawn sky tinted mauve where the sun intended to rise. Ten minutes later it was gathering steam, and by the time it was light at 8:00 it was an impressive whiteout with horizontal winds that sculpted and repeatedly reformed crusted, floury drifts across the parking lot and down the alley between the old plant and the new. On the slippery roads at lunch I steered the Cadillac left onto Front Street- intending to go north- but kept turning, spinning slowly but surely on the snow , until I was facing south. I drove up to the State Hospital and turned around in the parking lot.

It stormed all day and into the night, blowing so ruthlessly and relentlessly that familiar features of the landscape were blotted out or camouflaged and it was impossible to tell whether fresh snow was falling or the old was just getting rearranged. The wind invaded every space and left a calling card of fine, icy powder inside doors and windows. The steps to the U.V. reactor completely disappeared and the pump house hatch was buried. The keyhole on the lock was filled with ice.

The vicious east wind continued all day today, depressing the temperature to -27. I bundled up to check the U.V. and pump house this afternoon, but even so, the wind was agony on the
bare five square inches of my face, causing my sinuses to ache and burn as if I'd gulped an icy beverage too quickly. Stumbling blindly down the hill I began to hear a strangled noise, but before I paused to seek the source I realized it was me, whimpering piteously into my gloved hands, which I had clamped over my mouth and nose in an unconscious and desperate attempt to block the wind.

I am aware that there are far less hospitable places on the planet, but during an east wind in southwestern Wyoming, they are difficult to imagine. I spend the worst of the winters here dreaming of my beloved San Diego's perfectly temperate climate and hazy winter beaches. I think of tropical shores and blazing deserts and places with enough humidity year-round to prevent human skin from declining into a cracked and bleeding veneer of crumpled, dusty paper.

This is nothing new, and it isn't over yet.
Even promises "bitter cold," and those pages aren't known for overly dramatic parlance. So I find myself projecting, scheming, counting down the years or months or days until I can make a break for it and flee to a paradise with palm trees and sailboats and birds of prismatic plumage. In the meantime, I guess I'll just have to use my imagination.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Lunch Lady Land

“Where d’ you think wim can get in?” Jeff wondered aloud as we pulled up behind the school district’s central kitchen around 10:30 a.m. today looking for a suitable tap from which to collect a bacteriological sample. Things appeared calm on the outside of the tidy brick structure as we approached. A white delivery truck was backed up to a bay where a double-decker cart was waiting on the outdoor platform, loaded with neat stacks of colorful pre-made salads and hoagies on pristine white buns, orderly and serene in the winter sunlight. And then a sealed bag of chopped lettuce came flying out of the building’s open door.

We heard a squeal and girlish giggling as we hesitantly climbed the steps. A tall blonde standing in the cargo bay of the truck was doubled over laughing, the corners of her white apron gathered in one hand, the bag of salad in the other. Whoever tossed the salad had ducked quickly back inside. Just as I decided it must be an isolated incident, we passed though the double doors and into utter chaos.

The kitchen was mayhem, a wide, white room with a high ceiling filled with a dozen or more bustling, barking women dressed uniformly in navy blue polo shirts, aprons, rubber gloves, and snoods or hairnets. Around the walls were deep stainless steel sinks, each with a massive sprayer and long, segmented chrome hose. Rows of stainless steel preparation tables and mysterious vats of bubbling amber fluid stood back to back in the center of the room, their metal plumbing hoses and valves exposed and labeled with colored metal tags. The walls featured racks of industrial-sized pots and pans, and laminated posters with cartoonized food items promoting good nutrition. An imposing metal slab of a door in the back must have led to a vast walk-in cooler.

The smell left me undecided, something between deli counter and car wash, not unpleasant but incredibly disconcerting. The women appeared to be on fast-forward. They laughed and shouted over the roar of equipment and the hiss of high-pressure water jets that herded globs of Spanish rice and pickle juice along stainless steel troughs to a wide-mouthed garbage disposal. A stout girl with dark curls squashed under a white snood was draining one of the bubbling vats into a greasy five-gallon bucket. Women were stacking crates of cantaloupe and bananas, compiling the components of packaged meals, dividing finger foods into portion-sized paper envelopes, and ladling into tiny, lidded plastic cups bright sauces from opaque plastic jars the size of gasoline canisters. In one corner a woman operated a mixer with an automated arm churning in a bathtub-sized bowl. She dumped flour in whole ten-pound bags at a time and added pale blocks of margarine she could hardly grasp in one hand.

In a walled-off, windowed corner, an office brimming with furniture, hardware, catalogs, papers, and colorful, food-themed knick-knacks contained a formidable woman clamping the receiver of a telephone to her head. As we were about to interrupt her, assuming she was in charge, another woman noticed us- standing in the doorway, overwhelmed- and inquired “as to our business.” Jeff explained the mission and she pointed out an empty sink, next to a woman rinsing baking sheets the size of tabletops. From her we learned that the entire system was on a water softener, but by this time Jeff was determined to get what he came for no matter the circumstances. Once we established an acceptable chlorine residual, he relieved the tap of its aerator, disinfected the spout with a cigarette lighter (inviting disapproving scowls from those of the aproned army near enough to watch, who craned their necks in curiosity but never lost momentum), and filled the BAC-T bottle just to the shoulder without exposing the mouth or the lid to the organic flotsam in the sink.

The women were jovial and boisterous, but intensely focused on their daily ballet- for it was, in a word, graceful. As we made our way through the din to the door, they politely sidestepped for us and each other, ducking and reaching, ceremoniously handing off trays, bags, and parcels as if they were the gilded cages of a magician’s proud doves. The apparent chaos was a neatly choreographed process of assembly and production, and I’m still marveling at the absence of spills and harsh words.

Jeff never remarked on the spectacle, concerned as he was with the task at hand (five more BAC-T locations) and, more importantly, getting to lunch on time. But I’m certain it made an impression on him; he left the building looking totally shell-shocked and shaking his head. I, on the other hand, took with me a rather inspiring and energizing picture of industry and camaraderie that lasted through an entire afternoon of shoveling snow with the boys.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Squinting into the Sunrise

I used to inundate this blog with a lot of profound, philosophical, adjective-strewn introspection. Lately it seems to have devolved into more of an innocuous news portal or a photoblog- which I don't approve of, since I have the gallery, which also misses my attention- and while that's fun and amusing, it's probably not what kept people coming here in the first place. So I am resolving- simply because it's convenient and timely, not because it's a new year- to more frequently blog those thoughtful essays and gentle rants that amused you all before 2006.

And while I'm setting goals, there's something else on my mind. Somewhere amongst the days of 2007, some of you will be called upon to- get this- help me move. It won't take much, just a few trips of somebody's pickup for the big stuff. The small stuff I can move by myself in giant Cadillac-sized trunkloads, and a lot of it's going to the thrift store anyway. But sometime this year- hopefully soon- I will be either buying a home (this is the more likely scenario) or renting somewhere else (I dread the thought). Four years will be more than I can stand of this place.

Sometimes I wake to the sound of thunder and realize that the girl who lives on the top floor- a girl with the energy of a ten-year-old and thighs each the girth of an ancient Sequoia- is thundering up and down the wooden staircase above my head. Sometimes I wake to find cigarette smoke scorching my sinuses and have to get out of bed and stop up the kitchen sink. And then there's the plumbing.

At midnight on December 23rd I got frustrated with the slowly draining kitchen sink- yes, I frequently do my dishes in the middle of the night- and took the gooseneck off to find it filled with gravel.

It still wouldn't drain, so I disconnected further lengths of cheap pipe and found this:

I certainly didn't put it there. I dubbed it "the Fraggle" and threw it out into the snowy yard. Then I scraped the pipe out with the wire coat hanger I use to get into my truck when I lock the keys inside.

The green stuff is Space Invader foam I tried to seal the apartment with to prevent the cigarette smoke from coming in, but I can't very well squirt it down the sink drain, can I?

I've saved the landlady a lot of money on professional plumbing and was rewarded with the warm, fuzzy feeling I get after a successful bout of problem solving, but there comes a time when the problems I solve need to be my own and not someone else's. I want my own home now.

Later that night- or at 3:30 the morning of the 24th, whichever way you want to look at it- I had to go upstairs to ask a neighbor's guests to stop going in and out of the front door of the house, which is right above the head of my bed. They were stomping the snow off their boots and slamming the door, and I can only ignore a certain amount of this. I wound up staying there for an hour, holding a beer I didn't want and getting to know Jeremy's intoxicated pals, a motley group of local twenty-somethings for whom a night at the Legal Tender bar is the height of social interaction. A girl with a Harley Davidson bandana on her head repeatedly inquired if wanted a smoke. I finally stuffed the pack between the cushions of the couch when she wasn't looking. You can't offer what you don't have.

For all my complaining, I've actually enjoyed living here. It's warm and comforting and secluded, and when Dean's not smoking and the living room carpet isn't damp, it smells good. It's dark enough that I can sleep until noon, but I've managed to keep a few plants alive, huddled around the brightest window and out of reach of Kitty the Self-Destructive Feline Herbivore. The greatest feature of this apartment, though, is the price tag. It's going to be hard to go from $225.00 a month, including utilities, to $800 a month not including utilities. But our priorities change, don't they? And I'm willing to sacrifice some things financially- cable T.V., for instance- instead of sacrificing my health to Dean's secondhand smoke.

Enough of this, though. My heels have finally healed- I hiked them into bloody pulp snowshoeing over Christmas vacation- and I'm going out again today in a different pair of boots that might decrease the damage. I have a whole year to house-hunt, and plenty of time to blog about it.

In any case, these are my goals, along with a few others that may merit mention at some point. I hope to make your visits here more frequently rewarding, and I hope the new year holds as much promise for you as it does for me.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007