When I am grumpy

When I am already grumpy is when my clothes don’t fit right, when my shirt gets stuck around my ears somehow. My pockets hook around door handles, yanking me backward when I’m already rushing around. The neighbors shout and turn their TVs up and my brain can’t tune out the wah-wah-wah noises. The tea is too hot. I spill boiling water everywhere. The weather goes bad—sticky and hot when I want to run, giving me a headache, but turning chilly and clouding over when I try to sit outside with a book. Every car lays on its horn. My stomach hurts. My headphones glitch. My hair falls across my face and into my ears, feeling exactly like ants. I can’t get comfortable because the bench is too straight-backed. Even the goddamn bird song is loud and piercing. 

Then I let the tea cool a bit, and I drink it down (Earl Grey with honey and milk, perhaps the best beverage). I read a paragraph over and over again, unable to absorb it because that woman in that one apartment keeps laughing, and someone else appears to be learning how to play the drums.

More tea. I finally make it through the paragraph and something in it inspires a fun detail for Book Three. I write it down. The breeze is starting to feel very nice. Birds are zooming and cooing. I think about how some people are very energized by living in a city, precisely because of these things that so often set my teeth on edge: the unpredictable, chaotic, joyful, tense, terribly human sights and sounds.

In spite of myself, I relax and I decide I’m going to make it through the afternoon.

On an unrelated note: how can we city-dwellers let out some good bloodcurdling-scream energy without having the authorities called on us?

Alley tourism

In my meanderings/experimental trespasses, I’m drawn to alleys. Primarily because they increase my ability to not repeat a route, which is not allowed. But also because they’re such a trip. They meander delightfully, zigzagging in strange directions between and around houses, so it’s often unclear when you enter one where you will come out. 

Plus, it’s like looking behind the curtain at the character of the houses and the people who’ve lived in them. Like a lot of places, DC’s homes are often clustered in identical rows developed together. (Most places in DC, they are rowhouses, which you might call “townhouses” or “terraced houses” depending on where you are.) You can tell roughly when a line of houses was built based on the size and style: low, two-story clapboard ones with no basement are from around the Civil War period. Larger brick two-story houses with basements (or “garden levels,” if you’re trying to make yours sound nicer than it is to rent it out) are later. In wealthier areas, you find three-story Victorians with all sorts of turrets and crenellations. In other places, there are gluts of later-built perfunctory gray blobby guys. 

This is all to say: each row of them tends to look the same from the front. There will be variation in color, if someone has bothered to paint it, and sometimes wild variation in siding material, depending on when the last major reno happened. But the bones all look the same. It’s like a row of coloring books filled in by different children with decent motor skills: the same structure, but different choices of decor, and varying tidiness.

That’s from the street. 

From the alleys, it’s a whole different matter. There are no zoning protections back there. The backs of the houses are utter chaos. It’s hard to know even what the original developer’s plan was for the back, because every house has had so much done to alter it. Many houses used to have sleeping porches in the unthinkable days before air conditioning made these soupy summers bearable. In the years After Air Conditioning, many homeowners* changed the sleeping porches into something else, but everyone had a slightly different plan with it. Now there are open-air balconies, enclosed game rooms, extra apartments popping up over the top of the original house, spiral staircases meandering down to ground level, barbecue patios and planter beds, ersatz garages and exercise equipment. Porches spring up in all shapes and materials. There are big windows facing in on dining rooms. The modernity of the chandeliers, the finish on the table, piled high with homework or clean as a whistle waiting for the next dinner party, all tell a story.

Perhaps wandering in the alley is almost a bit indecent, like spying. The front of the house is for guests, for deliveries, for appearance on the nightly news in case something of interest happens on the street. The back of the house is more just for the neighbors. Perhaps they didn’t anticipate a weirdo at the edge of her rope on a desperate walk taking solace from the Weird Times seeing the personality of each little house bumped up against its friends. 

But I suppose a lot of things are weird right now, and I’m just one among all of them. And my hope for all of you, gentle readers, is that you can let your freak flag fly in the alley of your life, whatever that is, no matter how tidy and regular you keep your street side.

*One of the very few English words containing a “meow!”

A little more than equal night.

Last night at some point, depending on your local time, was the autumnal equinox: the moment at which the night and the day were of equal length. Now night is longer. This means that, even though it was over 90 degrees today and the trees are looking more parched from drought than ready to turn colors, it’s fall.

The symbolism is there: dark and light are staring each other down, and for a moment last night in their thumb war it appeared that they were at a stalemate, but dark now is leaning over light, whose brow is growing sweaty with fatigue. But there is something comical about the idea of this cosmic battle, because it’s one that plays out annually by precise mathematical rules. We’ve had the game fixed for millennia, ever since we started clocking the heavens on our megaliths. Darkness, now holding the upper hand, will win until December 21st, when light will get a second wind and come charging back until June 21st, and so on. Just like every year, give or take a day or two, on whatever calendar you reckon by.

You might say that we don’t need to attach meaning to it. There’s no surprise left in the game. But we do. The seasons are alternating change and stasis, and every year it shows us a mirror on ourselves.

Summer, light’s realm, is the stasis of life. The leaves are out, their hands outstretched, dark green and stable. The bugs, in this part of the world, howl all day and night long. The heat looms in and sets up camp.

Winter is the stasis of darkness, silence, and death. The trees outstretch their skeleton hands to hover under the slate sky. The warm-blooded courie in to stay safe from dark and storms and cold.

The shoulder seasons, by contrast, are all movement and change. You can’t fix them, even for a day. Each week is different, for however long they last. In spring, the buds come out on their own secret schedule, and you miss them if you take a different path a few days in a row. The trees get that fuzz of infant green, and you almost wonder if you’re imagining it. When the sun is glaring in your eyes for the first time in months, you may wonder if you’re just overthinking some moss—but no, it’s a leaf, you find out soon enough, and then there are leaves as far as the eye can see.

I’ve always loved fall the best, at least in theory. I find its colors, its smells, the feel of its air on my face, quiveringly beautiful. It’s temporary, too, like spring. One day you’re looking out at the top of the hill and it looks just a little less green, and then all at once it shrieks into full yellow or sighs through brown, and it’s not all at once, but suddenly its over.

I’m sadder in fall, too, and I crave to love it so badly. Those things are probably connected. Spring is all improvement, the slow glimmer of a rising smile. Watch the light grow longer. Watch the greening. It’s all abundance—the promise of future abundance, which is the best kind, sweetest of all in the imagination. And your imagination goes wild, waiting for warm summer nights on the patio, waiting to get your toes in the water.

And fall is the opposite of this, which is the paradox of abundance and scarcity all at once. There is only so much more time before the leaves are past their peak, and are gone. There is only so much time until the biting cold will stretch out its arms and stay for a while. But for now there is the harvest, the scenery, the delicious smell of wood smoke and leaf mold on the air. Pumpkin flavored everything; pumpkins on your paper towels. Time to get out the spooky socks and the right kind of crisp in the air to put them on. And crisps—yes, do you bake? Now you do: apple crisps, and pumpkin cheesecake bars, and lumpy-crusted pies.

The changing of the seasons is such a forced reflection on time. Seasonal time is inherently objective, and yet inherently subjective. There’s the objective amount of time the summer lasts—one looks at a calendar for that, June to September. There’s the objective, but unknowable, amount of time that summer weather lasts—check the forecast, make some predictions. But the way that I will feel about summer on a certain date? I often catch myself in the feeling that I didn’t quite do it up all the way—fewer weekly cookouts, trips to the beach, hot nights on a rooftop, than I anticipated from my perch in chilly winter. Scarcity, again. The feeling that I wasn’t there. And now the nights are coming sooner and it might finally begin cooling off, I can’t do it until next year.

What a strange way to live a life, I realize, fussing at the map rather than the territory.

But now the ticking experience clock is turning to fall. So I get the urge to gather, to binge on experience, to check things off like a squirrel gathering nuts, because it will soon be gone for so long. That kind of frantic demand for enjoyment, the harvest urge, is strongest in fall.

Gather ye cider donuts while ye may,
   Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same jack-o-lantern that smiles today
   Tomorrow will be dying.

Basically, I love fall, even if you could say it triggers me. But I’m celebrating the beginning of the season the best way I know how: with an inaugural apple cider, wearing some flannel quite by coincidence, with a candle burning, surrounded by my decorative gourds, welcoming it in.

A brief, loud noise.

On Thursday night, I was having a very normal one: sitting on the couch with my boyfriend, (re)watching “The Crown.” Because the weather is in its glorious early-fall phase (the swampiness has dried out a bit), we had the windows wide open.

At some point, there came a very loud noise. It only lasted for a second or two, but it was a big rumble, or maybe a clatter, hard to characterize in hindsight. We looked at each other in confusion. “Probably an engine,” he said, and we heard nothing else.

The next morning, the news: a shooting, blocks away. Two “males armed with AK style rifle,” the police say, shot six people (killing one) in the courtyard of an apartment complex. They drove away.

Across town, three other people had been shot less than a half hour later. Likely unrelated.

These things barely even make the news. Body count far too low. Probably gang-related, and in that troubled housing project. It belongs to other people.

It was very loud, and very fast, and very common.

Swamp lessons.

Something else I’m always talking about in meatspace (perhaps “complaining about” is more apt) which is especially relevant in August in DC:

The dew point.

Bear with me.

Most of us are accustomed to talking about the humidity percentage. But as I laze here indoors on this mid-August mid-Atlantic free sample of purgatory with a lingering migraine, it’s 93 degrees out and just 50% humidity. So why does it “feel like” 100 degrees? Why, when one steps outside, does the sweet release of death suddenly seem so appealing, whereas 93 degrees in my arid hometown would be patio weather for the semi-hardy? 50% humidity doesn’t sound terrible.

And how can Olympia, Washington be one of the most humid cities in the country, and no one there sweats profusely while cursing existence?

As this article from the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang explains, humidity percentage is an expression of relative humidity—how much water vapor is in the air relative to the air temperature. You could have 90% humidity at 32 degrees, or 90% humidity at 90 degrees, and there is a very different amount of water vapor in those two air situations. Hot air can hold far more water vapor than cold air, so higher relative humidity in warmer air is bad news for people who don’t like their air drinkable.

The relative humidity percentage, then, doesn’t tell you what you want to know, which is how miserable you’ll feel if you dare to venture out. Weather nerds prefer using the dew point, which is the temperature at which water vapor will form dew. Think of a cold drink brought outside on a hot day: how long will it take for water droplets to form on the outside of the bottle? A higher dew point means that the droplets will form quickly, because the air touching the bottle won’t have to cool very far to form dew. The higher dew point means there is more water vapor in the air generally, as the air becomes closer to saturated with water. And more water in the air means more discomfort.

For those new to dew points, the number will mean almost nothing to you at first. But if you memorize a quick set of reference points about the dew point (perhaps from this handy chart) you can quickly get a sense of the system. For example: during my walk earlier today, the dew point was 74, which is abominable. At the time, the temperature was 81 or so, which gives us a relative humidity of about 80%. I was…not thriving. And I knew it, because the dew point was 74, and I looked like this:

Now, the dew point is supposed to tell us how our delicate human bodies will feel when we are exposed to a certain amount of water vapor. The Capital Weather Gang helped us out with this handy graphic:

But, it seems, even though no one ever says they get used to this humidity, we are somewhat accustomed to it. I mean, look at how much more delicate people are in Idaho:

“West is best,” I scream into the swamp as I melt into a puddle of sweat and tears and the whisper of a dream of autumn.