Sunday, November 20, 2016

Reno, continued

Sometimes the best thing for your sanity is to rip up filthy carpets and tear down shitty wallpaper. This week the husband and I are taking a staycation; it was originally supposed to be a genuine vacation—taking our moving-truck-turned-camper to the southwest to see some more national parks before they get sold to the highest bidder—but the truck is a bit wonky right now and our new house is a very old house that needs crazy amounts of renovation. As such, we stayed put and armed ourselves with pry bars, paint brushes, and caffeinated beverages.

I’m not disappointed. The camping trip would have been a lot of fun, of course, but I don’t know that I’m in the right frame of mind just yet to go back to appreciating the beauty of America. Our honeymoon trip in the summer had filled me with the requisite awe that comes from seeing just how astonishing the landscape of this country is. But my head has been a muddled, messy place for many days now, and when you’ve got a mess to clean up, turning your back on it to look at pretty scenery isn’t going to fix anything.

So far the reno seems to be going well, though it’s early days still and we’ve only just begun shoveling money into this pit. Already there have been a couple of unexpected expenses—the old furnace, for example, which dated back to when phones had rotary dials and TVs had rabbit ears, needed to be replaced. Luckily we discovered this back when the weather was still unseasonably warm, so midweek while the husband was at work I went out by myself to let the furnace guy in and do some cleaning. The furnace guy was a jovial man who looked like he probably played football in high school and still got together with his buddies once in a while to drink beer and reminisce. I showed him the old furnace and let him do his thing while I went upstairs to Windex the hell out of the windowpanes, which had so many layers of schmutz on them they might have become archaeological dig sites.

A couple of hours later I heard a vehicle pull up our long gravel driveway. I looked out and saw a pick-up truck with a broken chair in the back. The furnace guy must have called some salvage guys to haul away the old furnace. I watched from the upstairs window as two men got out of the truck, and then I jumped back from the window as if it had suddenly burst into flames.

Before I tell you why I reacted the way I did, I could remind you that I was alone in a very isolated location and in many ways I don’t much resemble the people who live around here. I could tell you what recent events have meant to me personally and hope you understood. I could rationalize and justify and defend for great long paragraphs, but the fact remains that when I saw the two men who came out of the truck, I was terrified. They came into the house, bantered briefly with the furnace guy, then got to work hauling out the old furnace. I stood perfectly still, willing them to leave quickly.

“Mrs. Well?”

One of them was calling up the stairs to me. There were only about three things wrong with those three syllables (it’s Ms. not Mrs., it’s not pronounced “well,” and it’s not my name) but I sure as hell wasn’t going to point that out. I pasted a smile on my face and went skipping down the stairs as though my beau had come to take me to the county fair.

“I seen you got a lot of stuff outside.”

He was talking about the piles of junk the last owners had left out there, including six TV sets, which we were having a hell of time figuring out how to deal with properly. He handed me a business card. “I can haul that all away. Just give me a call, I can deal with it.”

I beamed delightedly as I took the card, as if he’d handed me a great gift. “Thank you! That would be terrific! We were trying to figure out what to do with all those TVs! Nobody will take them! It’s ridiculous!” As I prattled on I couldn’t help noticing that the man had exactly one tooth that I could see. Maybe he had some molars, I don’t know, but I wasn’t about to ask.

He nodded, encouraged by my enthusiasm. “Also I seen you been taking off the wallpaper. You know the best thing for that? They have these things, steamers, you can rent ‘em at U-Rent. Takes the paper off real quick. I did a whole room in just a couple hours.”

He explained how the steamer worked, and I listened with a rapt expression on my face. I know about steamers. I also know they aren’t necessarily the best way to get off wallpaper because they can damage the wall. I didn’t say anything, though, just nodded and looked fascinated. In the back of my mind I imagined describing this moment to friends, making good use of the term mansplaining.

The guy’s buddy appeared—he had on a faded T-shirt with something written on it that I glanced at and then didn’t glance at again because I pretty much didn’t want to know. “This is a big house. Looks small on the outside. Didn’t think it was going to be this big. Where’s the bird?”

The non sequitur threw me until I realized he must have seen the cage we’d set up for our macaws. I explained that they were still back at our old house, and that this would be their temporary cage until we built a much bigger space for them. He nodded. “What you got?”

“Macaws. Two of them.”

He nodded again, more vigorously. “Oh yeah I had two of them once. Blue and golds. How big’s the new cage gonna be—the whole room? That’d be good.”

Actually we were going to create pretty much a whole other house for them, but I didn’t feel the need to go into all that. After a bit more cheerful conversation we shook hands, I thanked them for their help, and they drove back out.

I still do not know quite what to make of this experience. I know what was going through my mind before, during, and after the encounter, and if I’m honest with myself I know that a lot of it did not reflect the politeness and civility I showed them. I saw them as two white guys in a dirty pick-up truck in the country. I am not sure it is a victory that I was able to treat them as though this didn’t matter to me when in fact it did matter. I am not sure of rather a lot of things right now, but luckily there’s a whole lot of wallpaper that needs stripping, and like I said, that kind of work may be just what I need: peeling away the surface layers, exposing what’s beneath, and hoping to make it better.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The last race of the year

I ran my last race of the year on a chilly but sunny Saturday in Wisconsin, at the Bong State Recreation Area (which, as a friend notes, must require an enormous budget for the replacement of stolen signage). Calling this a “race” suggests a certain degree of structure and formality, and while there was a bit of that—the course was well marked, the aid stations provided plenty of typical distance running fare—the main rule was “choose a distance you feel like running, run it in whatever time you feel like taking, and have fun.” This is the kind of race ethos I tend to embrace in a big way, and given the dark cloud that’s been hovering over me the last few days, a long run in the sunshine seemed like just what I needed.

I’ve been running for ten years now, and there are still aspects of running that are a mystery to me—for example, the mental versus the physical. A lot of people will tell you that running is more mental than physical, and while there’s certainly truth to that—you can have all the physical ability you want and squander it entirely if your head isn’t in the right place—it’s so grossly oversimplified as to be almost useless as practical advice. Mental ain’t worth squat if you haven’t trained, and if wanting it badly enough were all it took to reach a running goal—or any goal—well, the finish line would have to be as wide as the race is long because there’d be a ridiculous tie for first place. All that said, my head was almost certainly not in the right place when the RD said “go.”

This was a small race—maybe 60 runners total—so most of the time I ran alone, which I much prefer. Because this was a recreational park, however, there were many points where I came across other people on the trails. I am an introvert, a misanthrope, and a general shunner of humanity, but when I run, I jettison all that baggage to improve my pace. At an appropriate point, I meet their eyes and greet them—nothing too effusive, that’s a little freaky, but just enough to give them the small courtesy of acknowledging their existence. They almost always return the courtesy. If they don’t, depending on how things are going for me in the race, I might just shrug, or chuckle, or hiss obscenities about them under my breath, but such occurrences are rare. And as silly as it sounds, those little exchanges can really help with the mental part of running a long race.

There were many such exchanges during this particular race. Along a duckpond I saw hunters in orange vests with an eager golden retriever at their side. I nodded and smiled. On the horse trail I saw an older couple riding pretty pintos. I nodded and smiled. A black couple, an Asian couple, a white family with four small children looking just as golden and exuberant as the retriever had been. Nod and smile, nod and smile, nod and smile, always reciprocated. It should have made me feel good. Normally it would have. It didn’t. As soon as our friendly greetings were exchanged, the shadow of that cloud fell over me again. Ugly, ugly thoughts wormed through my head. So, here we are, being so respectful and decent to each other—well, golly, that must mean all’s right with the world! Certainly that’s borne out in current events. We’ve had an African-American President—minorities must be just fine! We had a female major-party candidate for President—women must be fine! America is the land of opportunity, so the working class is A-OK! And white people—well, they’re white, so of course they’re fine!

We aren’t fine. We have significant problems to deal with, problems that won’t be solved with a nod and a smile.

I ended up not having a particularly good race, which isn’t surprising. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that I might have actually needed to have a not-so-good race. It’s easy to be a nice person when things are going well for you. When they aren’t, you need another reason.

Kindness matters. The world can be such a lousy place, the people in it so capable of coldness, rudeness, hostility, or worse, especially to someone they don’t know, that when a random stranger treats you kindly, it matters. Lately I’ve been wondering, though, if it really is enough. We are one way on the trail on a sunny day, with our nodding and smiling, but another way online or in the voting booth. We are one way when we sit down one-to-one with someone different from us and another way when we are surrounded by people who look like us. We are one way when we are satisfied with our lives and another way entirely when someone else seems to be getting a little more than we are, without deserving it, certainly not any more than we do.

And lest you think I imagine myself above all that, I assure you I realize I’m capable of the same bad behavior as everyone else. I’ve said and done incredibly stupid things (and I can just picture a few of you out there reading this and muttering “Got that right, Moffitt”). I had hoped to do my best to counter those stupid things with thoughtfulness and compassion whenever possible. If I was successful at all, I wonder now if it made any real difference. I never thought running was the solution to anything, but I wanted to believe it wasn’t merely self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing to run long distances and write about it. I wanted to believe the things I experienced on the trail could mean something more—something positive for moving forward. This particular time, all I did was end up back where I started.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Day one: Boots and bones

“I like that one.”

I looked at the flooring sample he was pointing to. I kept looking at it.

“You hate it, don’t you.”

“It’s a bit … busy.” I peered closer at the label. “Tiger stripe. No wonder you like it. It’s got an animal name.”

Saturday morning at Home Depot, ostensibly there for all the boring but necessary stuff we required for beginning work on our new home: a post-hole digger, a chainsaw, and a lot of cleaning equipment. At some point though we got sucked into looking at fun designery stuff like flooring and countertops and backsplashes. Just to stick to a theme, we’re looking for stuff that is, or at least loudly claims to be, eco-friendly—bamboo flooring (sustainable!), recycled glass countertops (repurposing!), all that. Yeah, I know, it’s unbearably precious, and I’m not kidding myself in imagining this stuff makes us candidates for environmental sainthood, but it at least gives us a way to envision how cool each room will be.

But before we can do anything the least bit cool, we have to do a whole lot of decidedly non-cool work—namely, cleaning. I’ve seen filthier houses than this—I once looked at a house so filled with junk the realtor and I couldn’t even get into some of the rooms, they were so jam-packed—and it is true that we merely donned gloves and facemasks rather than hazmat suits. All that said, it was still a fairly gross day. Everywhere we looked, there was garbage. In the kitchen there were petrified clumps of cat poop and mouse poop (and given the prevalence of the latter over the former, I surmised that the mice were winning). Inside the workshop we found the bones of a raccoon’s paw and outside the rib of a … something. In the laundry room I found all sorts of weird, random items, including, crammed into the back of a broken drawer, a tiny pair of girl’s cowboy boots. They looked unworn. They reminded me of that 6-word Hemingway story: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

The true story of the boots might not have been nearly so dramatic as that; it might have been that the little girl who owned them simply didn’t like them very much and hid them away one day. And even though this house seemed to reek of the quiet desperation of the previous inhabitants, it’s quite possible their lives were satisfying if slovenly. As a writer I could try to create some sort of fictional narrative about these people, but as strange an admission as this may be, there are times I don’t believe imagination can do justice to the truth of our lives. I’ve taught creative writing students that stories aren’t just about what happens; they’re about what matters. Well and good, but what about the rest of life? What about what doesn’t make it into the story, what gets left behind?

After we’d been working for several hours, we took a break, of sorts—our kind of break. The husband got out the macaws to free-fly them, and I decided to do a short run around our property. It’s a half-mile around the perimeter, but the prairie grasses are super thick and tall, so I ended up finding maybe a quarter-mile loop that was slightly less exhausting to get through. There we were, me high-stepping through the field, the husband calling “Boston! Phoenix!” until the pair landed on his arm and he sent them off again. The western horizon glowed crimson with the setting sun.

Whoever gets this house after us won’t know about any of these things that happened to us today. Who knows what they’ll think about us—maybe they’ll roll their eyes when they see all our earnest attempts to be eco-conscious, which isn’t really all that different from our wrinkling our noses at the ghastly wallpaper in the bedrooms and the crushed empties in the woodshed. That would be a mistake. Every life is far more than the residue it leaves behind.