October 23, 2014

An entry from six years to the day before, but that’s a story for a different day.

October 23, 2014

Beets are incredible. on the cutting board whole they roll around like filthy rats with their hairy tails. They fall on the floor as though to scurry. I lop the tails off and throw them away because they disgust me. Then the hunks of beet bodies flow and stain my cutting board bright pink, catalog pink. Unreal. 

Without being heated or soaked at all they just want to explode their color and wet funky smell. Hotpink blood staining my fingernails for days, an eruption of earthness into my second-story kitchen like a cold volcano.

I chop a few of them with a bunch of carrots, fingerling potatoes, chicken, spices, and cheese and mix it all in a casserole dish. I pour in half and half that was about to sour. Instantly the half and half sloshes around the casserole dish looking for all the world like Pepto Bismol. It’s Doctor Seuss food. Then I whip two eggs and mix them in. 

The bake will boil down the pink cream.


Dad made sure to clean the sink at the end of the night. Scrub it thoroughly, separately wash the mat and drain traps, run the garbage disposal, dry it down. I found this out when I did the dishes and he was there at my shoulder telling me how.

I didn’t really get it. Cleaning a sink sounded a lot like cleaning a shower: aren’t these things inherently clean? Isn’t it sort of their job to be?

(Don’t worry, readers. I now understand that this is, bafflingly, not how it works.)

“It keeps the cockroaches away,” he’d say. Sometimes. Other times he’d say it kept the elephants away, and when I raised my eyebrows, he’d ask when I last saw an elephant.

I could no more imagine cockroaches scuttling around our tidy arid house’s sink than I could imagine elephants tromping through the living room. But he’d grown up in a hot wet climate, and I could tell—once you see a roach, you don’t ever un-see it.

Despite many run-ins with rats and other non-rent-paying dwellers of group houses I shared in college and afterward, I never saw a cockroach until I spent a summer in DC. We kept that house pretty clean but if you stayed up late enough you’d see them scurrying along the baseboards of the first floor like a conga line. One night my friend got drunk and started picking them up one by one between his thumb and forefinger and tossing them through the back-door safety bars.

“And stay out!”

I don’t think they did.

Because that’s the problem: once you have them, they never leave. At least that’s what all the websites say, the ones you frantically skim when you’re having a semiannual panic that maybe you have an undetectable infestation. They’re trying to sell you extermination services, after all. They’ll tell you that if you see one, you have a hundred, and if you have a hundred, there’s no amount of sweeping at the base of the cabinets that will starve them out. They’re like original sin. You need an intercessor; you can’t absolve yourself.

Despite several prolonged bouts of Googling the guises a roach may come in (can they be incredibly small and also shaped and colored differently than most roaches? Can they lay microscopic eggs?) and a few bouts of frantically tearing the place apart, learning how to vacuum around appliances no one has moved in a decade, I have once again concluded that we are living alone in this place.

(Alone, that is, except for the plants and the friendly tiny spider who lives in the front window. We’re glad to see her every morning.)

But I know that even if I move far away from this swampy place they seem to love so much, and far away from messy neighbors and the trash chute that seems to back up weekly, I’ll never go to bed with scraps or drips in the sink.

Because that’s what they want.

And, much like supervillains, they are skilled at making obsessive enemies for life.

Trapped in the Fitbit Cycle

So you’ve been pretty sedentary lately. That’s okay; it happens to all of us at chaotic times like at the end of grad school or during the quadpocalypse. You noticed yesterday that your legs were sore after a moderately long walk, which makes you worry that you’ve lost a lot of fitness since you ran that half-marathon a few years ago.

Fear not: modern technology can help you. Buy a fitness tracker!

Soon, you’ll receive gentle reminders on your non-dominant wrist that will help you move a bit throughout the day, encourage you to get enough restful sleep, and increase the amount of beneficial exercise you get. Imagine how good you’ll feel then.

You’ll love how the colorful interface rewards you for meeting your goals. Some days, you’ll meet all of them—climb enough stairs, take enough steps, cover enough miles, get your heart rate up for enough minutes, burn enough calories, do some movement during enough hours, and get your target amount of sleep. That’s a lot of metrics. Just imagine meeting all of them by dinnertime. You’ll call these Perfect Days. At the end of them you’ll be glowing with pleasure and just a bit of pride. Hopefully the good kind. You’ll be very glad you decided to make this healthy step.

And you’ll commit to never cheating. You won’t be like those people you see who sit, roll their eyes, and shake their wrists when they get a reminder at the end of the hour to move around. No, you’ll take this seriously. After all, you’re not doing it for the rewards, as you are not a lab rat—you are doing it to actually improve your health. You just want insight and a bit of encouragement.

During the first week, you’ll feel pleased when you get five Perfect Days. You’ve taken up running again and you’ve gotten familiar with your building’s stairwell, which it turns out isn’t nearly as ominous as you thought it would be. Great job!

In week two, you’ll be well underway to a Perfect Day when your boss calls you at 3:45, which is not ideal because you’d planned to go for a walk at ten-till-4 that would have gotten you a lot of steps and also hills for stair-climbing credit. Goodness gracious, he’s really droning on. Soon it’s 3:57.

You’re still going to walk—that’s the thing. You’re ultimately going to get the right number of steps in the day; at this rate, they just won’t necessarily happen while the clock still says 3. But your body doesn’t know the difference, does it? You’re still going to get good movement scattered throughout the day. It’s not like you’re actually going to be sedentary for two full hours!

At 3:58, you decide to shake your wrist. Only, you emphasize, to have the data reflect reality, which is that you’re going to go on a walk in a few minutes whenever he stops talking. You crank your wrist back and forth until it buzzes to let you know you got your steps in.

You’re not necessarily proud of this, but it’s not cheating of the sort you’ve seen in other people, because you ultimately get those steps and then some. And it all makes sense when you get your weekly report and it shows that—yes—that was a Perfect Day.

You start reading up on the recommended articles about all types of health. Rest is extremely important. And, indeed, you’ve even taken to occasional naps to make up for nights when your watch tells you that you slept more poorly than usual. It turns out that taking real time away from the stresses of daily life can add years to your lifespan. You book a vacation—a weeklong stay in a rustic cabin.

It rains cats and dogs all week at the cabin. You love it, actually. It makes you feel incredibly cozy. You brought a big, juicy book you’ve been longing to read for months. You deactivated all the stressful, time-sucking apps. You sleep better than you have in months or years.

And, as it happens, you move less. You’re just so relaxed, and the couch with the big picture window with a view of the rain falling in the deep-green woods is so hypnotic, that you realize your body is craving stillness.

But every hour the thing on your wrist buzzes. Buzz. Buzz. Every day until Wednesday you fake it, shaking your wrist until you meet at least some of the goals, because after all, this whole thing was about tracking how healthy you are. For overall health, it’s very important to do the kind of good resting you’re doing this week. So, in a way, it’s not cheating to take credit.

Buzz. Buzz. Every hour.

On Thursday you realize what this reminds you of: it’s the rigidity of clock-time, the scourge of modernity. It’s a nag, a task. For several minutes you spiral picturing the report you’re going to get on Sunday: the email will have a bunch of angry-red, pointing-down arrows in it. You moved a lot less this week than your average. You went up almost no stairs. You didn’t do your workouts. As though you should be punished, criticized, for resting one week in a dang year!

This thing is really just a capitalist shill, isn’t it? It’s trying to hold you hostage to this patriarchal vision of us all as thin, “productive,” emotionless superbeings who spend a lot of money on wellness products, because at the end of the day, we’re all valuable to the extent that we’re consumers and/or products to be consumed. That’s no life at all.

This is actual tyranny. You’ve tyrannized yourself in the name of making yourself healthy. It would be much better to simplify, to take all the electronics out of the bedroom, to wake up with the light in the window and let your body live how it wants to, like your peasant ancestors who you imagine moved intuitively and ate a lot of barley and wild dandelions. Who measured their lives according to the seasons and the spiritual calendar.

You are liberated.

Six months later you get winded walking to the store so you buy a Fitbit.

Relationship Advice

I’ve been a male anglerfish. I sank my teeth in, gave up entirely on nourishment. I let my jaws and lips dissolve and fuse with the flesh of the beloved’s side, waiting to be made useful, equally happy to wither down to a dead pair of gonads.

Having lived this way, I can tell you I don’t recommend it.

Mural by @patrickowensart

I’ve been a penguin, cozying up to the beloved, but only for a season, shivering together on the ice. Us against the elements like that: it wasn’t to last. I waddle away from it with whatever kind of smile a beak can form.

Still, if you’re going to square with impermanence, you might start there.

I’ve been a lioness, helping and shunning and nurturing and punishing. I’ve been a sea otter, falling asleep holding hands on the wavering tide.

Now I’m one in a pair of pigeons. We dwell in the city and feed on trash, but you should see us when we take to the trees. We look just like doves.

Soft Animal

I read somewhere recently that your body is the only way you have any experiences in the world.

This is painfully obvious, maybe, but it wasn’t to me. As a post-Enlightenment person, I’ve struggled for many years against the feeling that I am a rather defective brain in a vat. That is to say, “I” am my brain, and my vat is this meat-suit that for some reason cannot process certain ordinary foods and which gets sleepy at inconvenient times.

But I am the vat. So is my brain. Everything my brain has ever done has been because the vat was there to do it. At the end of the day, my brain is an organ that feasts on glucose and relies on other squishy little organs to function. Every shard of love, every brilliant thought, every heart-piercing thrill, happened in my body.

Now, where did I read this helpful little nugget of wisdom? On the Internet somewhere, which means I have no idea who said it or in what context, because the Internet is a soup of free-floating little ideas. Just like brains in vats, ideas on the Internet are rootless entities. The Internet is a masquerade ball for brains, the place where brains go to be on holiday from their vats. On the Internet we’re all just user-names, cell numbers, saying words, needing nothing but electricity to work. I send memes or thinking-of-you texts to a username or a cell number and I truly believe, if I don’t bother thinking about it too hard, that I am communicating directly with a person I care about. I forget that I’m using my body to talk to a machine, relying on the fact that the person I care about will use their body to talk to their machine soon and we will thereby be connected. But that person is not their cell number, their Instagram inbox, any more than the love I feel for them is the digital photo of the enormously fat grizzly bear I send them.

Online we are stripped down to pure thought, pure language. This illusion is quite an ego trip for the brain, which is humiliated to be so dependent on its embarrassing and unpredictable body.

I haven’t been writing much. I forget to do it, if I don’t have my to-do list helping remind me to. (Don’t let anyone ever tell you that a writer is someone who can’t help themselves from writing. On the contrary; it’s very easy to avoid it for days, weeks, years. Especially the hard parts: long projects, messy ones. Ones that require research. It’s the easiest thing in the world not to, just as it’s terribly easy not to eat vegetables, for a while.)

Every so often I realize I “should” post something here. Then I consult my trusty box of ideas. Twenty-five pages of them. I scroll down from the top, up from the bottom, middle out. But there’s often just a shrug awaiting me there. A lot of the ideas have really missed their moment (sorry, guys). A lot of other ones are very heady—maybe the kind of thing my brain fancies itself impressive for even considering writing, but the rest of me just goes—

Give it a rest, nerd.

So on a quiet afternoon, here’s where I find myself: low energy. It’s raining outside. The bright yellow leaves look especially brilliant against the gloomy gray. Mug of chai with some extra ginger slices in. Bright-red fall-scented candle making it all smell pretty spicy in here. Between books and board games and Sunday dinner.

If there is a time for my brain to charge ahead, write some impressive thing or other, this is not it. Today is a day, with apologies to Mary Oliver, for the soft animal of my body to love what it loves.


The cool darkness of the old back hallway. Carpet feet, light falling in silver.

The green out the side window and the olive bending tenderly over my front window.

In the backyard under the maple spreading each of her red-green hands over me, a red-green net against the hot-oven sky. Stretched out on an Adirondack chair watching the dark-green pool send slivers of sunlight up to the leggy pears.

The dry heat warming my thighs under my book.

Hot tomatoes ripening in the sun, a scent too big for their tiny red cuteness.

As twilight falls, the cooling like you only get in the dry. Some stars coming out. Windows open to the crickets, the fireworks of early August.

Hedges. Gardenias. Camellias. Azaleas. Elms, ashes, oaks. Gold Spanish grasses.

Coyote bushes scraping my bare legs as I cycle at a sprint. Sun falling into my open shoes. The fuggy water smell of the river. A glimpse of the snow-dark Sierras.

Silent craggy oaks casting oak shadows on the gold grass. Coyotes and jackrabbits loping across open spaces. Boulders, mini-cliffs.

Trees from everywhere. A city from a plain from a marsh from a desert.

The window open at night as I sleep. A cool breeze through the greenness of the trees. The contrasts. Gangs of turkeys revolting across the lawns. Tiny sidewalk footpaths between fences.

Little shops where people wear tee shirts, tennis shorts. SUVs down wide straight streets. Low buildings. All the quiet sprawl of the shrugging West.