Monday, June 27, 2016

I remember, I remember when I lost my mind, there was something so pleasant about that place

I seem to have a knack for bizarre encounters with folks I meet around town.

This past weekend, one of my childhood friends was in town with her husband, so I thought I'd take them to Vail on Saturday to see a little bit of the mountains, see the view from the top, and get out of the Denver heat.  There are great activities for kids, so it was sure to be fun for everyone.

Before we left, I took the car to get it washed and to fill up with gas.

After the car was cleaned, we stopped to get gas at a 7 Eleven.  I pulled up to the pumps, set the nozzle in the tank, and went inside to buy a case of water to keep in the car.

I picked up a big case of water and went to get in line.

This is where the layout of the store becomes important (see my most excellent diagram, below).

From my vantage point, I saw a guy at the checkout counter, so I stood behind him and slightly to his left. I didn't see anyone else behind him.



As he moved away after finishing his transaction, I saw an African-American woman, who I will call Crazy Lady, walk up behind him as I started to move closer as well.  (The only reason I mention her race is because of what happened next.)  She was shorter than the top of the shelves, so I hadn't seen her until she stepped out from the aisle she had been standing in.

She snapped at me, "the line is back this way."

I hadn't seen her in line behind him, so I responded, "I think I was actually next." I said this matter-of-factly - I was not spoiling for any kind of confrontation.

She said, "oh no, I've been back here.  Haven't I been back here the whole time waiting??"  She said this to the guy who had just finished paying.  He looked back, a little bit confused, and seemed to nod.

I was about to say, "ok, I'm sorry, I didn't see you there," but before I could say anything, she started yelling at me.

"Why would you automatically assume I'm lying? Where do you get off calling me a liar?  Huh, Trump?"

What the fuck?  "Trump"?  Is she suggesting that I'm a Trump supporter (and therefore a racist) because I'm white??

"What are you talking about? When did I ever call you a liar? I didn't call you anything!" I said.  I was a confused and a little flustered.

"Oh, you just assume that I'm lying, didn't you Trump?  Yeah, that's right, you heard me."

"I don't know what you're going on about.  I never said you or anyone else is a liar.  I didn't see you standing there, that's all."

"BARACK OBAMA! THAT'S ALL I'M SAYIN'!"

I actually laughed at this.  "You haven't said anything! And just to be clear, I voted for Barack Obama twice!"

Ugh, why am I engaging? I know full well that there's no point in engaging with the crazy.

"I seriously doubt that!" she yelled.

"I don't give a shit what you doubt. What the hell is wrong with you?"

As I said this, I noticed that Zeke had come in (he and Josie had been waiting in the car) and was standing next to me.

"Truth hurts, don't it, Trump?" she spat.

"Oh, Jesus Christ," I sighed.

"Don't you curse in front of your child!!"

This got my hackles up.  "You don't need to worry about my child," I said. "And I didn't curse."

Now another woman decided to butt in.

"You took the name of the lord.  Oh, so you don't believe in God??"

"Well, not really, no," I said.  "And why is any of this your business?"

Crazy Lady said, "you piece of shit parent, talking in front of your child like that, TRUMP!"

Zeke's eyes widened and he scooted a little closer to me.

I finally snapped.  "You know what? You can shut your goddamn mouth, you crazy bitch. Leave my child out of this. Stop talking and take your stupid ass out of here!"

She kept yelling at me, but made her way out the door and into the parking lot. Zeke was eating it all up.

I finished paying for the water and was signing the credit card slip when the cashier laughed and said, "what was up with her?"

"She's a fucking lunatic, that's what's up with her," I said.

The second lady (the one who asked me if I believed in God) said, "don't you say that about her! She's my cousin!"

I rolled my eyes.  "Of course she is. Whatever, that's your problem."

And I walked out, paid for my gas, buckled the kids back in the car (Josie had stayed out there, oblivious, reading a book), and left.

Zeke, to his credit, was unruffled.

Later, when we were driving, he said, "are you upset, Mama? Did that lady ruin your day?"

"No, she didn't. I don't care enough about her for her to ruin my day."

"What was she yelling about?"

"Honestly, I'm still not sure."

But at least she provided me with some ammunition for the next time I get in an argument with someone.  If I want to make a point without having to actually make a point, all I need to say is, "BARACK OBAMA! THAT'S ALL I'M SAYIN'!"

I've already used it twice.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

It's a Saturday night special, got a barrel that's blue and cold...

There's a great line in When Harry Met Sally when Jess and Marie are moving in together and trying to combine their households, deciding what to keep and what to toss.  Jess's fugly wagon wheel coffee table doesn't make the cut, and when he protests, Marie says, "everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they couldn't possibly all have good taste."

We all think we have good taste, that we're the good guys, that we're reasonable, that it's the other guy who's the misinformed idiot.

Sometimes we're right, sometimes we're wrong.

The problem is that we all live in our own personal echo chambers. We have access to more information at our fingertips than ever before in human history, but we also can and do choose what information to receive. Everything we consume is filtered so that our own opinions and impressions are confirmed to us. My Facebook and Twitter feeds, the blogs I read, the news sources I frequent, all reinforce my impressions that Donald Trump is an ill-informed, narcissistic danger to this country, or that abortion should be legal and safe and easily accessible, or that people should be able to love and marry who they want, or that Michigan is far superior to Ohio State in every way. Someone else with different views will obviously receive different information to reinforce their own perspectives.

It takes an effort to be open to the idea that you could know more to either bolster or disprove an opinion you might have. I'm as guilty as anyone of not doing this often enough.

The issue of guns and gun control and America's so-called obsession with guns has obviously been in the news quite a bit lately.  Anyone who knows me knows that my political sensibilities fall on the liberal end of the spectrum, and I don't believe that the second amendment's language, written in 1789 to secure the right to "keep and bear arms" for purposes of allowing a "well-regulated militia" to maintain the security of a free state, should be interpreted to allow any yahoo off the street to be able to get their hands on any weapon for any purpose.  But I also believe in personal freedom and responsibility, and in limited government infringement on how we live our lives, so I don't believe in an outright ban on guns.

Of course, it's the middle ground that is so messy and confounding.  I believe people should be able to own and use guns for hunting and sport and self-defense.  I also believe that it should be very difficult - if not impossible - for civilians to buy machine guns or similar weapons that are designed for warfare and mass killing, rather than for hunting or the reasonable defense of a home.  I believe in background checks and gun registration and waiting periods.

I also want any laws or rules to make sense, have basis in reality, and be designed to actually work. And my sense of how that can be accomplished is limited by the fact that I have virtually no experience or real knowledge about guns.

So I'm trying to learn.

A good friend of mine is big into hunting - he grew up doing it and was exposed to guns from a young age.  He knows about guns, owns many guns, and is a huge proponent of responsible gun ownership, with safety being the foremost consideration.  He is not opposed to reasonable, rational gun control measures.

He and I were spit-balling about something fun to do on the weekend and decided to go shoot guns.  I was excited because I had never really done it.  I spent an hour or so at a riflery range at summer camp when I was 12, but nothing beyond that - I'd never shot or even held a handgun, and am generally ignorant about the different types of guns, how they work, and the ways they're designed to be used.

So we drove out into the forest, up a narrow, boulder-strewn road that was so rough and close to the edge of a cliff that we needed to pull over at a little opening where the road widened so that I could calm my breathing and my heart rate and my nerves.  And then we looked around and saw that we were right by the entrance to an old silver mine, and there was a rotted out little structure that was dinged up from other people using it for target practice, so we decided to stay there.

Old mine opening.
Shoot 'em up shack
Over the course of two hours, I shot seven different kinds of guns - a bolt action rifle (my favorite), a lever action rifle, a semi-automatic .22 pistol, a .22 single action revolver (Old West type of gun), semi-automatic 9 mm pistol, a semi-automatic 45 caliber pistol, and double action 44 Magnum revolver (the Dirty Harry gun, pictured below).  Every one felt and looked different and had slightly different features and characteristics, so it was a non-stop lesson for me.  

Safety was at the forefront of everything, which was good because I was nervous and wanted to be as careful and focused as possible.  I learned to double check the chamber to make sure that it was empty, how to hold the gun, where not to point it, how to hold my finger away from the trigger until I was ready to shoot, how to use the various safety features.  I received a primer on different types of bullets, different caliber weapons, different loading and firing mechanisms, how to aim, how to use a scope, which types of guns would be used in different hunting scenarios.

All afternoon, the conversation kept coming back to gun control and the current debate.  About how every gun I handled, no matter the caliber bullet, no matter the firing mechanism, is an extremely dangerous weapon that can kill or inflict serious damage.  And that the debate as currently framed, focusing on semi-automatic, high magazine capacity assault weapons like the AR-15, which has been used in many of the recent mass shootings, ignores entire categories of guns that are equally effective in their ability to kill many people in a very short period of time, and are also smaller and more portable (begging the question of why they aren't used more in mass shootings).

We talked about background checks and some gun control ideas that I was totally unfamiliar with, like warehousing, and other efforts to keep guns out of the hands of crazy people.  We talked about the idea of requiring liability insurance for gun owners, to cover scenarios like the negligent handling or storage of guns that allows them to get into the hands of children, or be stolen and used in crimes.  It was an informative and respectful discussion.

And the afternoon was seriously fun.  Shooting targets is fun.  Trying to learn a cool new skill is fun. Doing it outside on a gorgeous day and in a gorgeous setting is fun.  And as it turns out, I'm a "crack shot," in my friend's words.

"You've gotta ask yourself one question: 'do I feel lucky?'  Well, do ya, punk?"
It was also eye-opening that we weren't the only ones out there, doing the same thing.  We drove past clearings where other people were shooting, and past trees with old targets stapled to them.  At one point, a dad with three young kids in tow stopped where we were parked.  He was wearing a holster holding a Glock.  I was taken aback at how much it didn't alarm me, in that setting and that context.

Heading back into town, I remarked that I was surprised we didn't go to a shooting range.  I didn't realize that just taking a bunch of guns into the woods to shoot was a thing.  It was my first time, and I didn't know how this stuff worked.

He said, "Nah, I don't like shooting ranges. They're full of crazy fucking gun nuts."

I laughed, realizing that neither of us ever truly left our respective echo chambers.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

"Mama?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"How tall is Mt. Everest?"

We are on the plane from Denver to Virginia.  This means I'm trapped in a middle seat between my two children, Josie asleep with her head on my lap, and Zeke looking out the window and pelting me with a three and a half hour barrage of questions.

Luckily, I'm up to speed on my random geography trivia.

"About 29,000 feet," I reply.

"How do you know that?"

"I don't know. I heard it or read it somewhere."

"Did you know that all of Mt. Everest would fit in the deepest trenches in the Pacific Ocean?"

"I did know that. I think the deepest Pacific trench is about 35,000 feet deep."

"That's really deep."

"It is."

He sits and thinks for a second, then starts studying the safety card from the seat pocket in front of him.

"Mama?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"If the plane is safely on the ground, why do the people need to exit the plane on the slides?"

He's looking at the picture of an emergency landing on the ground.


"I don't understand the question.  If the plane crash-lands on the ground, why don't people just stay on the plane?"

"Yes."

"Why would they do that?  They're not just going to sit on the plane and not go anywhere.  There could be a fire or some other danger from the crash, or people could be hurt. They need to get off the plane."

He points to the "no" symbol over the hand holding a briefcase.

"What's that?"

"It's saying that if you have to do an emergency exit off the slides, don't take your luggage with you."

"Why not?"

"Because you don't want to take any extra time getting off the plane.  They want people to get off the plane as quickly as possible so that everyone can get to safety."

"In case the plane blows up?"

"Possibly."

He looks out the window for a little while.

"Mama?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"How fast can the fastest plane go?"

"I'm not sure.  I know it's at least a couple thousand miles per hour."

"Can this plane go that fast?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because it's not that kind of plane."

"What's the name of this plane?"

"Do you mean what airline is it?"

"Yes."

"It's United."

"Is that the airline that you don't like?"

"No, that's Frontier."

"Was that the airline that we took when we missed the plane?"

"We didn't miss that plane.  We got on that plane."

"Because you pitched a fit, right?"  He smiles.

"Right."

"How long does it take for this plane to go one mile?"

I do some quick calculations in my head.  "I think about 7 or 8 seconds."

"What if the wing falls off the plane?"

"That would be bad. We would crash."

"It's a really clear day today.  Look how far we can see."

"Yep."

"Is everything that we can see right now all one whole state?"

"I don't know. I don't know exactly where we are. But probably not. States are pretty big.  What we can see is most likely much smaller than a whole state."

"What river is that?"

"I don't know.  I don't know what we're flying over right now."

He's quiet for about a minute.

"Mama?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"Did you know that when a cheetah is running and is fully stretched out with its legs off the ground, it's 20 feet long?"

"I did know that. I think you told me that."

He starts looking at his book, which is about surviving different kinds of natural disasters.  It's got a picture from the Japanese tsunami of 2011 on the cover.  It shows the water overtaking cars and trucks and everything else.

"Mama?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"Was there someone in that truck?"

"Probably."

"Is he dead?"

"I don't know. Probably."

"What about that car? Is that guy dead?"

"I don't know. Probably."

"Are those mountains we're flying over right now?"

"Yes."

"Which mountains are they?"

"Probably the Appalachians."

"How do you know?"

"I'm guessing based on how long we've been on the plane."

"How tall are they?"

"I'm not sure.  They're not as tall as the mountains in Colorado."

"You mean the Rocky Mountains?"

"Yes."

"They look different.  Not jagged-y."

"That's because they're much older mountains. As mountains age, they erode and smooth out."

"What's the shortest mountain in the world?"

This one totally stumps me.  "I don't know, honey."

"How tall is it?"

"I don't know. I don't know how tall land has to be to qualify as a mountain."

"Is it five feet?"

"I'm assuming it's higher than that. Five feet is barely a hill."

"Is it ten feet?"

"More than that."

"What's the shortest mountain called?"

"Sweetie, I have no idea."

Short break in the action.

"Mama?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"Are we turning right now?"

"Yes."

"What if the plane gets sucked up into space?"

"That would be bad."

"Why?"

At this point, I start to laugh. I cover my face with my hands and I can't stop laughing. The guy in front of us, who has overheard all of this, looks back at me and smiles and starts laughing as well.

"You're doing great," he says.

I'm overwhelmed with a sense of deja vu.

Zeke reminds me so, so much of my brother Sam.  Sam is one of my favorite people in the world, partly because he is so inquisitive and thinks about things in such interesting ways.  But as a kid, when my family was travelling, we would argue over who had to sit next to Sam on long flights, because he never stopped talking and asking questions.

Later, I'm sitting with my mother at her kitchen table, telling her about the flight.  When I relay the question about the shortest mountain, she says, "why didn't you just make something up?  Just make up a name.  'The shortest mountain is Mt. Tiny' or something like that."

I can't believe that didn't occur to me.  But then again, she raised Sam.  She knows.  And it probably didn't occur to her the first time, either.

This whole process is a learning curve.  But a highly entertaining one.



Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Remembering the purple shadows of the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades...


What struck me about my UVA reunion this past weekend was what an intensely physical experience it was.  And it's not just the insane amounts of walking, from one get-together to the next, around Charlottesville or around the University grounds, that leaves your feet throbbing by the time you get into bed at the end of the night. Or that fact that by the time you're getting into bed, it's 2 in the morning and you've been up running around for hours and hours.  Or the alcohol that starts flowing in the middle of the afternoon and doesn't stop until 10 or 11 hours later.


It's also the ache in my head and face from talking and smiling and laughing nonstop.  It's the shower of hugs and kisses, one after the other, from sorority sisters who I don't get to see or experience often enough, and who suddenly felt like the most important people in the world, so I tried to soak up their presence with every part of myself.  The joyful whoop that escaped me upon greeting my friend Mark, who when he first saw me on Friday night, threw his arms around me and lifted me up, twirling me in a circle. The grass between my toes as my friend Laura and I cavorted in front of the Rotunda at 1 in the morning, throwing our hands in the air for a picture, as if we could take in the entire place in a huge embrace. The warmth of sitting and talking and just being with my dear friend (and former roommate) Jane, who remains one of the loveliest, sweetest people I have ever known.


The experiences of American college life have a universal quality to them.  Like college kids everywhere, my friends and I arrived at UVA not fully formed, so much younger and stupider than we realized - I was only 17 when I started, and didn't turn 18 until halfway through second semester of my first year.

We dipped our toes into the experimental waters of learning how to be adults, out on our own to decide which classes to take and which clubs to join and which interests to pursue.  Experiencing the self-consciousness of figuring out which friendships to seek out. Developing the self esteem to know whether and how peer pressure would shape our actions.  Having the discipline to drag our asses to an early class when the professor didn't take attendance, and there wasn't a parent to make sure you were up and out the door in time.  Navigating the world of living quasi-independently, dealing with roommates both of the amazing and the shitty variety. Deciding on our own how late we would stay out, whether and how much we would drink, whose beds we would slip into and what we would do when we were there. What kind of people we wanted to be.

We formed close connections and learned life lessons and received a great education.  And as an added bonus, we were able to do it in this extraordinary place that is infused with history and tradition, and which has a distinctive, stunning physical presence. Plenty of kids stumble to an 8 a.m. class, bleary eyed from a late night of studying or beer drinking or both. But we got to do it while walking past the Rotunda, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and designed by Thomas Jefferson to represent the authority of nature and power of reason.  Meandering down the brick-paved colonnades along the Lawn, where every year a select group of fourth year students are awarded the enormous honor of living in the tiny rooms along Jefferson's original "academical village," with their lack of air-conditioning or attached bathrooms, so you would see them trudging out in their bathrobes and carrying their buckets of soap and shampoo down to the showers.


I tried to never take it for granted - I walked down the Lawn and past the Rotunda thousands of times in my four years there, and every time I tried to really look at it and appreciate it.  The physical environment, both because of its beauty and its historical and architectural grandeur, was as much of a character in the drama of those four years as any other.

For the reunion, Jane won a lottery that gave her access to a Lawn room for the weekend, and it became our home base.*  It was the pre-party location before our class dinners, and the after-hours happening spot until late in the night.  It was where we hung out during the day, catching up with each other and greeting everyone who walked by, enjoying the respite from the sun on a hot Virginia day, with its soft, heavy, wet air. The entire experience was an assault on the senses - the beauty of the architecture and landscape, the heat, the physical contact with old friends, the music and laughter, the food and drink, the walking and the dancing, and the exhaustion when it was finally all over.


After 25 years, those four years feel far away.  We are more than twice as old as we were when we graduated, and memories fade. People change as they age and aren't as recognizable at first.

But then you drive down Route 29, or walk from the Corner past Brooks Hall up to the Lawn, down the colonnades, past the amphitheater, seeing the lush trees and grass, feeling the sultriness of the summer air; the environment becomes a time machine that delivers you psychologically back to that point when every emotion and interaction felt more intense, more vivid, because it was so ephemeral.


____________________________
*In an amazing coincidence, it turned out to be the same room that one of our sorority sisters lived in during her fourth year, 25 years ago.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Turns out not where but who you're with that really matters

After an utterly mediocre date, it was nice to come home to realize that I still had time to catch the end of my street's annual block party.  I reconnected with some friends who I hadn't talked to in ages, and met some new friends, and was reminded that there is nothing like the simple pleasure of just hanging out on a balmy evening on a front porch, drinking a beer and shooting the shit with cool people.

It's a feeling that always makes me intensely happy.  There are few things that fill my soul more than spending time in the physical presence of people who are warm and smart and funny and engaging. When the vibe is right and the conversation flows and we're laughing or sharing interesting stories or offering different perspectives on life, it's a wonderful thing.

It's such an essential part of how I like to interact with people, and the reason that I love reunions so much. To be with people who I love and admire, who I appreciate and accept for all that they are, just as they love and accept me for all that I am - it's the best thing.  So you have the buildup of anticipation waiting for the big event, and then the event itself is this explosion of joy and dancing and  drinking and laughing hysterically and hugging and talking and staying up until all hours, until it's over and the love hangover sets in and you realize that it'll be a long time before you'll again get to experience these people in this way.

And I'm fortunate that, between college and the various overseas schools I went to, there are enough reunions that I never have to go more than a couple or three years between big events.

But what about the time in between?

I have friends all over the country and the world, and because of the magic of social media, I am in regular - often daily - contact with my closest friends from Israel, India, McLean, UVa, law school, Atlanta, etc. My online exercise group has people posting daily from Canada, all over the U.S., the Netherlands, and Switzerland.  (There are also plenty of people who are Facebook "friends" but who I don't keep up with at all, and I don't consider lurking on someone's Facebook wall to be actual friendship, so they don't really count.)

But cultivating and maintaining real life, day-to-day friendships, especially in a place where I don't have family and where I didn't grow up, is harder.  It requires more effort because you have to step away from your phone or the computer and actually try to talk to new people and schedule a time to get off your ass and go do something.

I have definitely done that to a certain extent.  I have my crew of UVA sorority sisters who live here, and we do make an effort to get together, though it's never as often as we'd like.  Same with the small India crew that's here.

I also live in an incredible neighborhood with tree-lined streets and sidewalks and parks and neighbors who hang out and visit on the porch.  The elementary school is down the street, and the kids there are neighborhood kids.  We go to the pool that's 3 blocks from my house and as soon as we walk in my children are in the pool playing with 10 friends that they know from school and I can hang out with the parents.  There's a wonderful sense of community, and among the many great things about having children is the opportunity to meet the parents of their friends. It's a natural ice-breaker.

But there's a difference between knowing someone to say hi to them at drop-off before school starts, or chatting with them when we're both at the pool at the same time, and picking up the phone to call them and say, "hey, I'm kid-less this weekend, do you want to go to dinner?"

That kind of friendship takes work.  You have to actually and deliberately seek someone out and say, "hey, I'd like to hang out with you and be your friend."  Plus it can make you feel vulnerable, because what if they don't really want to hang out with you?  Then you'd feel like an idiot. Nobody wants to be rejected.

So even though whenever I run into parents or neighbors we always say, "we should really get together," it doesn't happen very often because ... well, because it takes effort and time and daily life gets in the way.

The effort is worth it, though.  This past weekend, after running into Kim, the mom of one of Josie's friends, we were talking about getting the girls together during the summer and I said, "and you know, it would be fun to get together to go have a drink or go to a movie."  So we did. We went to dinner the next night and that turned into hanging out on a restaurant patio gabbing until late, talking about life and marriage and raising kids and politics.  It was great.

Later in the weekend, after the aforementioned mediocre date with a guy who didn't pass what Kim termed the "can you imagine this guy naked on top of you" test, she was the one I debriefed with afterwards. And then I went home and went to the block party, where some of the neighbors who like to get together to play music invited me to bring my banjo to join them at some of their regular jam sessions.  A couple of the women and I even jumped in the bouncy castle, after laughing about the fact that the only reason it was safe was because none of us had to pee (you women with children know what I'm talking about).

In a few days I'm heading to Virginia for another college reunion. I have plans to meet up with so many friends, and I know it's going to be a weekend of sensory overload - joy and dancing and drinking and laughing hysterically and hugging and talking and staying up until all hours. I am beyond excited.

But I am also excited about the upcoming summer, forging new friendships and strengthening old ones with the people around me.