I'm planning to be back on the blog very soon, but in the meantime, take a look at the book trailer for Compass North just released by Duncurra (my publisher). Very nice I think! What do you think?
There was a bit of a stretch of time between week 9 and week 10 blogs, but my “year of new” project is still ongoing—and great! Finding time to write about each week’s new event has been the issue—but more about that later.
Friends have climbed on my “year of new” bandwagon and have helped with ideas and, on occasion, have been my intrepid partners for adventures. Susan found the Groupon for the drag queen brunch, and suggested we go. It definitely qualified as a new experience for me. We collected some other friends and six of us abandoned the bright Seattle sunshine on a Sunday afternoon to sit at the long plank tables in a packed, small darkened theatre, facing a dimly lit stage. We sipped our mimosas (part of the Groupon) and awaited the show.
Okay, I’ll be frank here. I had an idea of what a drag queen is, but honestly, I wasn’t sure that I had it right. So I did a little online research:
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a drag queen as a homosexual who dresses as a woman especially to entertain people.
dictionary.com states that a drag queen is a male transvestite, especially a performer, who dresses as a woman to entertain the public.
Both those definitions were straightforward. But the most intriguing information came from a Huffington Post blog:
It turns out that in the drag queen world there is nuance. For examples: Most drag queens are gay, but there is a small minority who are straight. “Bear” or “slag” drag queens don’t shave their facial hair. It’s a little more complicated than it first appears.
Our show began with the introduction of our mistress of ceremonies, a roundly robust and extraordinarily festooned and wigged figure with a voice that could flatten a room. We were exhorted to drink heavily, tip the performers liberally, and applaud at pretty much every juncture. Audience participation (and tipping), we were told, were the keys to a great show.
Then began the parade of acts. The performers lip-synced to very loud popular songs while dancing around the stage in spike-heeled boots, sequins, feathers and fans, fishnet stockings, giant wigs and headdresses. The two main performers were strikingly attractive, with figures any woman would envy. In spite of their heavy makeup and restricting costuming (imagine Cher all dolled up, but even more so), they were masterful dancers and athletes.
If there was a defining theme, it was that vast excess was required. One drag queen wore contact lenses that made her eyes glitter and glow like an alien from another planet. The drag queens were accompanied by dancers, men not in drag, but in very puzzling costumes. I couldn’t tell you why one dancer in the finale wore only a silver bikini and what appeared to be a silver submarine on his head, topped with the number 12. (Well, I do know about the number 12, because this is Seattle and 12 is shorthand for support for the Seahawks. But still.)
For me, it all fell a little flat. I’m fine with bawdy (and there was plenty of bawdy) but somehow the energy in the room didn’t build to a crescendo. The cast worked hard, but the show didn’t quite come together—perhaps because this was brunch, and for most of us, a mimosa is all we manage on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps if this had been a late-night show with late-night energy and more alcohol, the experience would have felt different. It was an interesting experience, but I don’t think I need to go again.
But one thing I did realize: These are hard-working people. They strutted and danced and jumped and cartwheeled—they didn’t hold back.
It must be frustrating for them when the right energy doesn’t materialize in the audience during a show. Crowd energy is such an elusive quality, that invisible thrum, almost a pulse, that surfaces at great parties and concerts, sometimes emerging unexpectedly and spontaneously with a swelling updraft of pure fun and even joy. We’ve all experienced it—but it’s finicky. Sometimes it’s just not there, and that’s all there is to it.
So…why the blogs might be a little further apart in the weeks to come…
I am still pursuing my “year of new.” It’s infused me with optimism. In fact, it’s helped me regain the focus I need to recommit to finish my next book.
I don’t know if all authors experience the stages of writing in the same way, but I think most do. In the book writing world, composing the first draft is a dreadful slog. You’re putting together the bones for your book, and although the story may be living in your head, it’s a painful and slow process to pull it out of your brain and get it into written words. It takes a long time and it’s exhausting.
(Stephen King wrote that first drafts of books should take no longer than three months. If he could show me how to manage that, I would worship at his feet.)
I began my first draft of the sequel to Compass North before Mark received his devastating cancer diagnosis. As he struggled through treatment, the draft languished. There was no help for that. I’d pick it up periodically and write a scene or fiddle with some language, but I couldn’t give it the attention necessary to move it forward.
Then, when Mark died, I felt as if I’d dropped deep below the surface of an ocean. I was submerged in grief and loneliness and loss. It’s taken a long time to emerge from that, and though I’ll never be the same person I was before, I’m back in the world.
I have a wonderful event coming up in late October (more about that in later blogs) and I am determined to finish the first draft of my next book before then. It’s a huge amount of work to do in a short period of time, but I think it’s attainable if I work diligently. So I’m diving back into the world of my story, and already I’m experiencing some of the less desirable side effects. I miss turns when I’m driving because my brain is gnawing on a problem with a scene. Emails go unanswered. Garbage cans don’t get moved to the street on pickup days. I open the refrigerator and find, to my surprise, that there’s nothing for dinner because I haven’t thought to go to the grocery store. It’s all part of the process.
The completion of the first draft, of course, is only the beginning, but it’s a huge accomplishment. For me, it will mean the worst is over. I love the process of revision, of chewing on words and sentences and paragraphs, of rearranging scenes, revisiting my characters. It’s hard work, too, but it’s so much fun!
So yes, the “year of new” is continuing, but if there are reporting gaps, it will only mean that I’m once again putting in time at a table at Starbucks, Bose noise-cancelling earphones firmly clamped over my ears, and I’m probably frowning at my computer screen because the right words are sometimes so darn elusive.
Wish me luck!
Widowhood 102, a Year of New, weeks 7 & 8: Embracing the dancing hippo, and an exercise in gratitude
It’s not always the big changes that whack you sideways. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much at all.
This week, I tried out a new gym class called “Core Essentials.” I expected we’d be doing sit-ups and other nasty abdominal work, the kind of workout that’s standard in the gym world. To my surprise, however, the class was led by a graceful and obviously accomplished male dancer, and the work involved a lot of dance moves and balance. Not my strengths.
I clunked my way through it, overheated and a little flustered. I wobbled on one leg as we swung our other leg through space while swaying our arms “gracefully” above our heads. We flung ourselves into arabesques and dropped into plies. We rose from deep knee bends to perch on our toes. George, our instructor, was the picture of grace. I felt like the dancing hippo in Fantasia. (Actually, the dancing hippo was a lot better than I was.)
But now, as I get more new experiences under my belt, I can start to generalize about this world of new.
Approaching these new situations, even the small ones, makes me anxious. It takes a bit of a mental shove to get me going. I’ve mentioned before that I think we get out of practice at being beginners when we graduate out of childhood and assume our status as competent adults. We don’t want to look stupid. We don’t want to lose face. Taking chances is not what we do. Each week, I have to give myself a little talking-to before I jump into a new situation.
This week’s experience also reminded me of a snippet from a motivational talk I heard years ago. I couldn’t tell you now the subject of the talk. The sound bite I remember is, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” The speaker’s point was that we make choices in our lives. We aren’t gifted with unlimited time and energy. As we invest in developing our expertise in one area, we forego other options. An extreme example is the Olympic athlete, who spends so many hours every day honing her skills. She makes a choice, and as a result there may not be room in her life for much else.
Although I do envy instructor George (and some of the other graceful souls in his class), they have probably spent years practicing dance skills and have muscle memories that I can only dream of. I will keep going to this class because I think developing good balance is important, and I’m a little shocked by how poor mine seems to be. I expect I will stumble and wobble and curse under my breath, but that’s okay too. I’ll add this to my list of new experiences and move forward, without having any expectation that professional ballet is in my future.
So what if I looked like a deranged dancing hippo? No one was paying attention to me anyway. They were all trying to get their own legs pointed in the right direction. I got a fine workout and I was once again reminded that there are many, many things I’m not good at. It’s an important reminder.
So far, no matter what the outcome, I’ve enjoyed a little thrill of accomplishment after every experience. I feel a bit more alive, as if I’m edging my way back into the world.
Grieving isn’t a linear process. I know I’m moving forward, but there are still days when the reality of my loss slays me. This last week, I could feel the dark abyss looming behind me. I was missing Mark and feeling very sorry for myself. As an experiment I decided to make a deliberate effort to break out of my dark place. I marched myself down to my local coffee shop, bought myself a frothy coffee, and took out a notebook. For an hour, I scribbled, as fast as I could, a list of things for which I’m grateful.
At the end of the hour, I had 115 far-ranging notations of gratitude, including the cheerfulness of hummingbirds; fresh salmon, tart blueberries, and very dark chocolate; my sister-in-law’s prayers; nice gel pens; Mary Oliver’s poems; and of course, having been fortunate enough to have 30 years with Mark. Little things and important things and silly things.
Half way through the hour I found myself grinning. So many reasons to be happy. And of course it’s not an exhaustive list. As I walked home (still smiling, I think), I was mentally ticking off new reasons to be grateful: the feel and smell of slick wet clay in the pottery studio, an auto mechanic that I trust, Rusty’s goofy dog grin…
Meditation practices often incorporate gratitude into their repertoire. However, I am a terrible meditator. Controlling my “monkey mind”—the term yogis use for the continuous mental chatter that fills our heads—is very difficult for me. But somehow, this simple act of listing so many positive aspects of my life led me right into a happy place.
I don’t give advice to other people about grief and recovery. I’m not qualified to do that. I’m working through my own grief as best I can, with the help and support and love of those who care about me. I think our paths through grief may have common elements, but each journey is unique too. But today I’ll make an exception: I found this exercise, this consciously taking just an hour to reflect and record what makes me happy, to be very powerful. If you’re feeling a little low, it might be worth giving this a try.
In an early scene in the movie Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts’ character enters an exclusive clothing store on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. She’s a down-on-her-luck hooker. Richard Gere’s character, an extraordinarily rich businessman, has handed her a wad of cash and told her to buy an outfit for the evening, but the store’s two saleswomen refuse to wait on her. They pretty much throw her out of the store, telling her that she doesn’t belong there. It’s painful to watch. (Happily, there’s payback later in the movie.)
Roberts’ character enters the store oblivious to the scorn she’s about to engender. But for some of us, visiting an establishment that markets pricey couture clothing is nothing short of terrifying. I know, I know, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. But class distinctions still shadow some of us. I grew up in an immigrant family, with parents who turned frugality into an art form. My mother had lived through World War II in England, and the deprivations of that time marked her. (She would squirrel away leftover pats of butter in her purse on our rare visits to a restaurant.) We were clothed from thrift store gleanings, long before it was in any way fashionable to forage for the vintage.
The trappings of the well-off were foreign to me, and frightening. I had no training in how to act in situations where wealth and advantage were taken for granted. Nowadays, my life is very different, but my history remains intact. As comfortable as I may be with my life now, I cringe a little at my belief that I’d still be horribly out of place in the halls of the rich and famous, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.
And so, this week, I put myself to the task of entering a couture studio and having a significant interaction. For years I’ve walked past the Luly Yang couture store in the graceful Fairmont Hotel in downtown Seattle. In the picture windows, formal gowns ranging from the demure to the outrageous face the street. These gowns are amazing. Up to now, I’ve admired them from afar but I’ve never entered the store. One of Luly Yang’s signature creations is in this store: the Monarch Butterfly dress, a couture formal silk corset and petaled skirt that clearly evokes the butterfly. It’s theatrical and magnificent. I decided I would go to the store and ask to try on the dress.
Again, I know, some of you will think that this isn’t much of a new adventure. But like trees, we bear the marks of our years inside us, no matter what our exteriors now show. If you cut a tree in half, you can tell the years that the tree suffered from lack of water or environmental stress from the size and quality of the growth rings for those years. Those rings never go away, even though they may be covered up with new robust growth. Like trees, our past is always inside of us, always with us. For me, walking into that store was just plain scary.
The store is compact and quiet, with pale beige carpet and small glass tables. One of the two saleswomen, both clothed head to toe in black, asked if she could help me. I’m just here to look at your lovely dresses, I said. She smiled and told me to let her know if I needed any help.
I wandered through the store. Half the store is devoted to exquisite wedding dresses. The other half is primarily for evening wear, of the very showy kind: lots of satin. I glanced at a few price tags. Each piece I looked at was priced at thousands of dollars.
The original butterfly dress rests there, the central showpiece of the collection. I chatted with the saleswoman about it. She was friendly and charming, not frightening at all. She told me that the they could customize a new gown like it for me, but that the original could also be rented. In the end, I didn’t ask to try it on. I just didn’t want to, after all.
When I got home, I found I was curious about renting the butterfly gown—a purely theoretical curiosity, since I certainly had nowhere to wear it—so I emailed the store about what it cost to rent. They responded that they had made a mistake and the dress was not in fact now available for rental, but that I could buy it for $25,000.
Well, as you may guess, I’m not buying the butterfly dress.
The whole experience, though, was remarkably empowering. Analytically, I know that there is absolutely no reason why the salespeople would be cold or rude to me. I looked perfectly respectable. But inside I am still carrying that uncertain fearful girl in thrift store duds, devoid of self-confidence, the girl who got picked on because of her funny accent and her bad clothes. She’ll always be in there, a ring in my tree that’s a little shriveled and puckered, but today she has a hint of a smile.
The photograph in the marketing material for the class hooked me: a lineup of gleaming tiny glass goblets, each delicate and unique, some with swaying stems.
Glass. There is something magical about glass. It’s a lovely material. I’ve been working in clay for years now, but clay, after all, is just mud. You can make something wonderful with it, but the big lumpy bags that await you in the studio are just heavy hunks of earth. But glass promises beauty from its very beginning.
So I made the jump and enrolled in the weekend flameworking introductory workshop, two days of 9-to-5 working with borosilicate glass at a local art school.
I didn’t know anything about flameworking. I know enough about glassblowing to know that it isn’t for me. I tried glassblowing once, for an afternoon, and it was like spending time in hell. The workspace was horrendously hot, the air scorched by the open fiery furnaces flowing with molten glass, glowing the brilliant orange of a volcanic eruption. The metal pipes that glassblowers use to gather the molten material from the furnaces are heavy and awkward. To collect the glass, you must get very close to the open maw of the furnace, so close that your fingers feel like they’re burning. The process isn’t comfortable or measured; once you begin, you fight against the clock to form your piece before it hardens. I know there are women glassblowers, many more these days, but historically this has been a very male-dominated, macho business, and it feels that way.
Flameworking (also called lampworking) suggested a gentler approach to glass.
There were four of us in the class: two young men who looked like high school students, a young woman in her thirties, and me. The other three had previous glass experience, so I was the only newbie. We were issued our tools and directed to set up our stations. We clamped our propane torches onto the metal table and immediately I had misgivings. It wasn’t an open furnace, but it was FIRE—fire that spurted freely from the torch in an impressive tapered blue flame. The list of cautionary “don’t” didn’t help: Never reach through your torch flame, wear your didymium glasses whenever anyone at the table was working with glass to protect your eyes from explosions, always turn on the propane knob on the torch before turning on the oxygen, always pick up your glasswork with pliers because you can’t visually distinguish the hot glass from the cold, spin your glass continuously to make sure the heat is evenly distributed on its surface. So many ways to screw up.
At this point, honestly, my instinct was to cut and run. I absolutely cringed when I lit my torch, but I stayed.
Cheryl, our instructor, walked us through our first project: icicles. We heated our glass rods with our propane torches until they were pliable, and then twisted them into coiled shapes, finishing by pulling off one end and fashioning a hook. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t. The glass cools quickly and becomes immobile, so heating a baton-shaped hunk of glass and twisting it evenly is a feat in itself. And the hook…slowly disengage from one end of your icicle, gracefully and slowly pulling the end of your pontil in a slow circle to form a loop, while the glass cools and hardens. My icicle looked like I’d strangled it. Cheryl, in her oh-so-kind instructor voice, told me that some people like that look, because it reminds them of vintage distressed glass. Right.
On top of the physical scariness of the whole process, a whole new vocabulary was in play: annealing, coefficient of thermal expansion, compatibility of glasses, frit, gathering, maria (not part of a prayer, but rather the blob that’s formed when you push two hot glass rods or tubes together), pontil, punt, strain point, stringers…my brain was in full-on overdrive.
There was so much to learn. The torch heat had to be modulated depending upon the part of the process you were engaged in; the rods had to be positioned in, out, above or below the flame depending upon the heat of the glass and what you were doing.
The icicle was only the first project, and all I could focus on was that I was going to set my hair on fire.
In short order, we attempted other projects. We melted, we pulled, we smashed glass. We pressed molten glass into simple pendants, we applied colors to clear rods and created glass seaweed, and we cut and pulled hot colored glass with needle pliers to form starfish. My starfish was a big red blob. Cheryl, still carefully positive, suggested that I start again. We made marbles, which sounds SO SIMPLE but was painfully tedious. (At least now I know how those patterns inside the marbles are made.) At the end of the first day, I was beyond exhausted.
We started the second day with coral sculptures. Mine emerged looking like the wooden terrace you’d use to tack up your tomato plants. To add a little more terror to my experience, in addition to the fixed flaming propane torch, I was now issued a small hand held propane torch for the smaller connections. Now I had to contend with two flames. Every time I tried to soften the look of my poor stick-like coral, I managed to melt away its legs. I failed coral.
Now, Cheryl said, we were going to progress to more difficult work. (!) We were issued rubber tubing and hollow glass rods. We were going to blow hollow tree ornaments. She demonstrated the process which involved about 20 delicate and skilled steps. The three other students grabbed their materials and tubing and headed back to their stations with determined enthusiasm.
It was beyond me and I knew it. When I asked Cheryl if I could practice some of the earlier work, she nodded. Maybe you’d like to make more icicles, she suggested.
So, after I slinked away at the end of the second day, I reflected on the experience. Despite my abysmal performance, I learned so much about flameworking and the properties of glass. I had been terrified by my propane-fueled flame and yet I hadn’t set myself on fire or burned myself too badly. (I did scorch a few fingers by touching hot glass. It was hard to remember all the rules.) My brain had been fully engaged and challenged for two days and was absolutely fried, but a heavy-duty brain workout isn’t a terrible thing.
I did realize, however, that I’m not very good at being a beginner.
Here’s my takeaway: When we were younger, we expected to be clumsy and unschooled when we tried something new. We accepted our role as students, as humble bumblers. We understood that a new skill required time fumbling and making mistakes. But now, I think our experience as competent adults can work against us. Our adult confidence makes us feel like we have to be good at what we do, even if it’s something new. We’re not willing to stumble, to struggle, to look stupid. We don’t want to look foolish. We want to be an expert from the get-go.
When I was in class, I kept asking myself, why aren’t I better at this? But now that I’ve stepped away and looked back, the answer is simple. It’s hard, and it’s a skill, and I just picked this up for the first time. It’s all new for me, from lighting the propane torch to learning the names of the tools to absorbing the feel of the molten glass, knowing when to heat it and when to pull it and when to stop.
So if there was a lesson for me this week, it wasn’t about the acquisition of skills of flameworking molten glass. Right now, I suck at that. The lesson for me is that as I go forward, as I try new things, I’m probably going to suck at a lot of things, at first. But it’s the price of going forward.
Where are stiletto heels, fur and glitter specifically prohibited, but hair nets are required?
It’s my birthday week, and I wanted to treat myself to something predictably wonderful for my weekly “new something.” Milestones like birthdays are emotionally challenging. I’m wistful remembering past birthdays when Mark was here to celebrate with me. Since I’m on my own now, I decided to create my own birthday event, and to invoke the magical power of chocolate.
I’ve always enjoyed all sorts of factory tours. We know so little about most of the stuff we use and consume in our daily lives. On a factory tour, you see the work, skill and magic that goes into making those everyday items you take for granted. I watched metalworkers fashion delicate, intricate jewelry at the Holly Yashi factory. At the Tillamook plant, I learned about all things cheese. (The only factory I wouldn’t visit again is the Yummy Chummies factory in Anchorage. If you have a dog, you know Yummy Chummies are the salmon dog treats your dog loves, but as a downside your pockets exude essence of fish. Multiply that smell a hundredfold and you’ll have a sense of what you experience if you visit the production plant.)
Perhaps everyone in Seattle except me already knew about the Theo Chocolate Factory Tour. “Yes, it’s great,” they said. “And there are lots of samples.” Hmmm…
The Theo chocolate factory is located in Fremont, one of Seattle’s quirkiest neighborhoods. (Within a block is a whiskey distillery that also provides tours and samples, but that’s another adventure.) Before you enter the red brick Theo building, from about a block away, you can smell it: an unmistakable dark thick aroma of chocolate.
When I arrived (without the prohibited stilettos, fur and glitter, of course), I donned my attractive blue hair net and ran a lint brush over my body in preparation for the tour. Our group was ushered into the green “rain forest” room draped with paper leaf garlands. Murals about chocolate production covered the walls. The dense chocolate atmosphere was overpowering. We were breathing chocolate. Essence of chocolate rolled around us and layered itself onto our skin. As we absorbed chocolate through our pores, Katrina, our tour guide, talked to us about cocoa beans and the process of extracting and preparing the seeds that will eventually become chocolate, and also about the deplorable conditions some chocolate harvesters (including children) have to tolerate, especially in Africa. We were told that Theo Chocolates, organic and free trade, provides a sustainable wage to its harvest and production workers. (Theo, by the way, isn’t a person’s name. It’s short for the Latin name for chocolate, theobroma cacao.)
And while Katrina talked, we ate.
Large wooden bowls of chocolate chunks were passed up and down our aisles, like church offering vessels, except of course, we were taking out and not putting in. Katrina invited us to take as much as we liked, but she warned us that a lot of samples were coming our way. We might want to pace ourselves.
Our first chocolate was an 85% dark chocolate that we were encouraged not to chew, but just to let melt slowly in our mouths. It was delightfully bitter and left the back of my tongue tingling. I could tell from the looks on some faces that it wasn’t universally well liked. Not everyone is a fan of very dark chocolate.
Katrina talked about growing and preparing cocoa beans, fermentation (chocolate is a fermented food!), and the difference between Congolese (nutty) and Peruvian (fruitier) chocolate. (It’s all about the “terroir,” the composition of the soil.) She circulated our second bowl of chocolate: a 70% dark chocolate with sea salt to bring forth the flavor and cut bitterness. Smiles all around; this was better received.
More bowls were being passed down the aisles: a 70% dark chocolate with raspberries, and then another, this time chunks with coconut. I was taking very small pieces, but I was already starting to get chocolate overload. The woman sitting next to me—a somberly dressed grandmother, part of a three-generational family group—was taking a handful of chocolate from each bowl. I love chocolate, but I am clearly a lightweight.
We moved as a group to a glass enclosure in the middle of the factory floor. Here, the saturated chocolate air was layered with a sharp vinegary smell, the byproduct of the production process going on around us. Katrina explained the purpose of the various vats and machines surrounding us before we hurried through the super-heated factory area to the kitchen.
We were corralled into a central space to avoid interference with the kitchen staff, who were whipping chocolate in stainless steel bowls and pouring mixtures into molds. Our samples here were various confections filled with ganache (chocolate and cream mixed together, like the inside of a truffle).
In the end, I couldn’t do it. I had to pass up the last sample, a piece of a toffee bar resting on a bed of dark chocolate. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’d had just too much chocolate. Yes, fellow chocolate lovers, there actually is such a state.
As the tour ended, Katrina led us into the factory retail store where, in our sugar-high daze, we bought more chocolate. There I discovered the ultimate treat: confections infused with Oban, Cragganmore, Lagavulin and Talisker. Yep, artisan chocolate infused with single malt scotch. Happy birthday, me. It’s a wonderful world.
My self-imposed project of doing something new every week doesn’t necessarily mean that each week will bring a big exciting adventure.
Such was the case this week, when my friend Susan and I subjected ourselves to our first timeshare presentation.
We had just rounded the final corner of an organized 5K walk when we spotted the freebie tents at the finish line. We were helping ourselves to the usual bottled water, banana halves and protein bars, when we were snagged into a booth promising cheap vacation travel. We were offered an amazing deal: For a few dollars, we could spend two nights at a cushy resort hotel. It sounded pretty darn good, but after we handed over our credit cards, I had a sudden epiphany.
“Wait,” I said, “Is this a timeshare deal?”
I’d heard horror stories from friends who had attended timeshare presentations. They’d practically been held captive while a salesman pressured them to buy.
The nicely dressed young man hesitated. “Well, we’d ask you come to a two hour presentation about our program.”
We were both ready to snatch back our credit cards. “Should we do it?” I asked Susan. “It’s only two hours. And they can’t make us buy anything we don’t want to buy, right?”
We stood in the booth staring at each other. “Well,” Susan said, “you haven’t attended a timeshare presentation before, so this could be your new thing for this week.”
That clinched it. We signed up and got our information packets telling us where to go and when to show up, later in the week.
When we arrived, it was very clear that this event was going to be meticulously orchestrated. No, we were told, we couldn’t stay together. Each of us would meet individually with our assigned representative.
Our representatives led us to small round tables in a large meeting room, each table with two or three chairs. In addition to Susan and me, there was a young couple with a small baby and a smattering of others. I tried to take a seat facing the center of the room, but was firmly directed instead to take a chair with my back to the room, facing my representative.
Steve wore a pink polo shirt that contrasted awkwardly with his very red face. He immediately peppered me with questions about myself, in staccato fashion, without seeming to listen to the answers. What was I going to do this afternoon, what kind of dog did I have, how old was the dog, what breed is the dog, what are the traits of that breed of dog? This, I assumed, was somehow designed to make us bond, but it was just weird and bewildering. His questions turned to how and when I vacation. As he made notes about my answers, he tried to fashion his pitch to fit my vacation habits, which was a near impossible task, since I favor group adventure-based trips. When I told him I wasn’t interested in a timeshare, he repeatedly insisted that this deal really wasn’t a timeshare (even though the printed material I’d received stated in bold print that this was a solicitation of timeshare interests).
We all faced the front of the room for a group slide presentation, focused on why this program was such a good deal, and the vast sums of money we would all save over the years by using this program for our vacations. It was an artful approach. If you accepted all the assumptions that supported their conclusion, you could conclude that yes, this was a great deal. But if you stepped back and thought about the unpredictability of where you would be and what you might want to be doing in the future, it really didn’t add up.
Then we went back into conversations with our individual representatives. Steve seemed quite perplexed at my lack of interest. Abruptly he stood up and turned me over to an older man with rumpled hair, who toted a fat well-worn notebook binder. I noticed that this was happening throughout the room: Team 2 was arriving on the scene.
At this point Susan caught my eye and sent me the look. You know the look. She widened her eyes just a little, one corner of her mouth lifted just a tad, and she stared into my eyes for a beat or two. What the f—, the look says.
I asked K why he was replacing Steve at my table. He told me that Steve was new, and that he would be better at answering my questions. I told him I didn’t have any questions. He shrugged, and opened his binder. It contained all the same information we had been given during the slide presentation, and I told him I’d already seen it. K was much more aggressive and challenging. Why would you not want to do this? What can you find negative about this? Why did you come here today? He leaned across the table, essentially growling at me, and I wondered how this approach was going to succeed. Was I supposed to be intimidated into signing up? I looked at my watch: We were closely approaching the two hour mark.
Finally, K slammed his binder closed and snarled, “Thank you for your time,” before leaving the table without a backward glance. I was hurried through a station in another room where a financial counselor was ready to offer me payment information (“no thanks”) and then I was ushered back down to the reception area by Steve, who asked me to please rate him excellent on all categories of the exit survey. If I didn’t, he told me, he wouldn’t get some accrued points that he really needed.
Susan and I chatted for a few minutes out on the street before going our separate ways. We’d both found the experience unpleasant, and neither of us had been tempted to sign up.
I keep thinking about that young couple with the baby. They seemed to be in deep conversation with their salesperson, so maybe they were considering buying. I so hope they don’t do it. The underlying assumption that life is predictable bothers me. It’s not that we shouldn’t plan for the future, but I know all too well that the future is a fragile and amorphous thing, and it’s not going turn out just as you envisioned it when you’re in your twenties, part of a bright new family with a darling little baby, imagining about how you’re going to vacation for the rest of your life. The future will include some curve balls that you’ll never see coming.
And those two days at the resort hotel for such an amazing price, our prize for sacrificing two hours? Well, it turns out that there are some restrictions that we didn’t hear about when we signed up. Time will tell if we can even book our resort stays. It’s a good reminder: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
(Moving forward into my second year of widowhood, I’ve committed to do one new thing—new to me—each week for a year. It can be big or small, important or silly—but it has to be new. It’s a way of reminding myself to focus forward, into my future life..)
Sensory deprivation tanks, also called isolation tanks, have been around since the 1950’s, but now they’re called float tanks. Floating in the tanks can supposedly reduce stress and chronic pain, by promoting deep relaxation. Their inventor, neuropsychiatrist Dr. John C. Lilly, must have been quite the character. He floated in the tanks after taking LSD, and by some accounts, discovered new dimensions and had encounters with aliens while floating.
I wasn’t seeking encounters with aliens, but floating sounded like an interesting new experience. (And, there was a Groupon deal, so it was pretty cheap.) The company advertised “Athletes, Meditators, and Creatives have been floating widely since the 1960’s.”
Back in the early days, though, the floater was fully immersed in a tank with a bizarre-looking mask that blocked out all sensory input. This company’s pictures showed tanks that looked more like plastic clamshells—not exactly appealing to me, but not terrifying. The tank water is saturated with epsom salt, and that provides buoyancy to keep a body afloat, even though the water is only about eighteen inches deep in the tank.
The float company’s lounge area was clean, well-lit and smelled vaguely of the ocean. While I waited, I was serenaded with the sounds of water burbles and faint strains of new age music. On top of a large coffee table lay a book in which clients have written about their float experiences. I leafed through the pages. There were some sketches, some general accolades (“it was relaxing”) and a very sad, long entry by someone who was hoping “to turn his fake smiles into real smiles.” I suspected he might need more than a float.
My favorite entry: “This is definitely the most L.A. thing I have ever done.”
My attendant—enthusiastic and clean-cut, with a lean long-distance runner’s body—escorted me back to my float room: a small, vaguely industrial space with an open shower, a place to hang and stack my belongings, and of course, my pod, which was emoting eerie green light and bubbling. I was given my instructions: Take off all my clothes (you do this buck naked), put in earplugs, shower and shampoo hair, turn off the room light and get in. After I was settled in, I was told, I should hit a button on the tank wall that would turn off the tank light. At that point, I would be in complete darkness and silence, floating in body temperature water. I was to “just relax,” and when my hour was up, the light would go back on.
I confessed that I was very nervous because I tend to be claustrophobic. Not a problem, he said, once you turn the light off you won’t be conscious of being in a small space. Well, okay. I showered, stepped into the tank and closed the lid. So far, so good. I slipped into the water, or perhaps onto the water, moving my arms into a goalpost position as I had been instructed. Then, I hit the button and turned out the light.
It was utterly dark and immediately disorienting. I floated, listening to myself breathe, for maybe five minutes. Then, I decided I wanted to turn the light on briefly, just for reassurance.
I couldn’t find the light switch.
The float tank isn’t that big, but in any total darkness, disorientation is common. I flapped and splashed around like a hooked salmon, slapping the tank walls, not panicked exactly, but close. Finally I shoved open the tank lid. With the help of just a shred of light from the room, I found the light switch.
Whew! Well, by my estimation, only about ten minutes were up, so I needed to try again. Lie back, turn off the light…but this time I did take note that the light switch was very near the lever bar for the tank top, just in case.
I floated and tried to relax, but I found it progressively harder and harder to breath. The humidity was intense and I couldn’t shake the impression that I was suffocating. My brain went into overdrive: “I’m suffocating, I’m running out of air, I’ll pass out and no one will know until the hour is up, and I could just die here…” Definitely not the stuff of deep relaxation. Nudging the tank lid open just a sliver with my foot, I let in a trickle of cooler air. That, of course, lowered the air temperature in the pod ever so slightly, so that the air and water temperatures weren’t exactly the same, which is how it’s supposed to be, but I don’t think I would have stayed in the tank otherwise.
I tried to enjoy the experience, and maybe I got close, for a time. I didn’t feel weightless, but more like my body was supported on a hard rubber-like surface that was perfectly fitted to my body. I never attained a sense of timeless relaxation. If fact, when the light went on to let me know that my hour was over, I was relieved.
After I’d showered off all the salt and dressed, I talked to the attendant. He was clearly disappointed that I hadn’t been delighted with my experience. When I told him about my breathing issues, he said there were runners’ breathing techniques that would help. He asked me if I’d be back, and I told him that I’d have to reflect about that. But really I don’t. I’ll just chalk this up to a new experience, but not one I think I have to repeat. If I decide to search for Dr. Lilly’s aliens and other dimensions, I’ll have to try another route.
(Moving forward into my second year of widowhood, I’ve committed to do one new thing—new to me—each week for a year. It can be big or small, important or silly—but it has to be new. It’s a way of reminding myself to focus forward, into my future life..)
I’ll start with a small confession: Once years ago, during a boozy happy hour with co-workers in a hotel lobby, we all briefly opened our palms to a fortune teller who was part of the hotel’s entertainment experience. I don’t remember much about what she said to me—wine was involved—though I do recall that some of what she said seemed creepily accurate.
But I have never before sought out a psychic. On the bus route between my house and downtown Seattle, a sign on a tiny pie-shaped building caught my eye:
LOVE AND RELATIONSHIP SPECIALIST!
Flapping over the permanent sign, a flag announced: “Palm Reading Special $15”
Well, who can resist a sale?
When I decided that this would be my first “new thing,” I discovered that I was nervous, maybe even a trifle fearful. New situations are uncomfortable. I also had to examine my motivation. I don’t believe in psychics and palm reading, but I wanted to know what it was like to have this experience. So, I cast myself in the role of respectful observer.
I walked through the open door into the tiny teal-colored entry room and pressed a button marked “Deliveries.” After about a minute, a young woman popped her head through the top half of a Dutch door and asked me to wait. I sat in a white upholstered bucket chair surrounded by crystal sticks, Buddha heads, clusters of white candles and, oddly enough, a sculpture of a reclining gnome reading a book while cuddling with a bunny.
I half expected my psychic to look like Oda Mae Brown, the fortune teller Whoopi Goldberg portrayed in the movie Ghost. Flowing robes, head scarf, staring into space while reciting messages from the dead. But the young woman who appeared to read my palm was remarkably ordinary in appearance, a 30-something with Mediterranean coloring and deep brown eyes, hair pulled away from her face. Instead of flowing robes she wore a multi-colored tank top.
We settled in a small cluttered room with a small table between us, only missing a crystal ball to completely set the stage. She looked me straight in the eye. “What brings you here today?”
I answered honestly. “Curiosity.”
First we talked charges. I would have liked a Tarot card reading, but that was $45. I settled for the sale offering, the reading of my right palm for $15, though I could have had both palms read for $25. (Do they tell different stories, I wonder?)
I placed my right palm upright on the table between us and she began. She stared at it briefly and told me that I would have a long life, into my late 80s or 90s or perhaps beyond, and my health signs were good. My energy was very positive, though the chakras showed signs of stress. I might want to meditate on my chakras.
“Are you under some stress?” she asked me.
Although this seemed like she was cheating, I answered. “My husband died recently.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That can cause some stress.”
She told me that I was a kind person with an open heart, but that I needed to take care that others didn’t take advantage of me. My finances were fine, and I’d probably get a monetary boost next year, probably in March. I would travel in July, maybe into August.
“Do you have any questions?” she asked me.
I couldn’t resist. “Will I ever have another relationship?”
“You will be surrounded by love and supported by committed relationships. That’s all I can see at this time.”
Hmmm. Well, that would be pretty good. It was all very bland stuff. I was disappointed. In spite of my great skepticism, I realized I wanted her to gasp over my palm, to be amazed at the wonderfulness of my life to come. Think of how you feel when you crack open a fortune cookie: You don’t believe the message on the slip of paper inside means anything, but nonetheless you’re a little bit pleased when you get a good one.
My reading was over, but my curiosity wasn’t satisfied. “Tell me, how did you get into this line of work?”
She didn’t hesitate. “I’ve been doing this all my life. My whole family does this. I’ve been reading Tarot cards since I was five, before I could read.”
Now that was interesting. I would love to sit with her over a cup of coffee to hear her story. I’m half tempted to do that—to go back and plunk down another $15, but this time we’ll talk about her history, not mine. That would be much more fascinating than anything she gleaned from my open palm.
A website describing the attributes of different dog breeds includes the observation that the standard poodle “…is one of the brightest and most attentive of all breeds, such a skilled reader of body language and expression, that he often appears telepathic.”
I’m convinced that Rusty is, in fact, telepathic. Or perhaps more accurately, an empath. In this last month, I’ve given him lots of opportunities to showcase his skills.
It’s been a rough month. In a few days, it will be the one-year anniversary of Mark’s death. As the date approaches, I’ve ground to a halt. I’m aimless, with no energy or ambition. Fuzzy head, mangled thoughts. I’m remembering Mark’s last month, a year ago, when his suffering was so intense. He battled so hard. To the end, until the day he lost consciousness, he struggled to stay here, with me, with our son, with his friends and family and the life he had made. “I love you” were the last words he said to me.
Hospice has again contacted me, since this is predictably painful time. A woman left me a voice mail, obviously reading from a prepared script, and pausing to insert the personal information:
“We are thinking of you (pause)…Stephanie…as as the one year anniversary of your loss of (pause)…your husband, Mark…arrives.”
So it was a canned message, but I didn’t mind. Hospice has been helpful. For me, it’s been a year like no other, but at the same time, I’ve become acutely aware of all the losses suffered by all the people around me. The experience of loss and grief is everywhere. But I still ache for Mark. Even now, at odd times, I forget for an instant that he’s gone.
I’ve learned a lot about grief. Yes, Hospice has helped, but more helpful is the unflagging support I’ve had from family and friends. I don’t think I’ve thanked them all enough. I can’t imagine traveling this path alone, as some must. Physical exercise helps me to manage the grief. A day hiking in the mountains with Rusty is great medicine. I guess it’s all those endorphins. And of course there’s Rusty himself, the enormous red poodle who follows me like a shadow and who hovers by my side, licking my wrist or my knee, pushing his head under my hand, whenever the weight of this journey is too heavy for me. He’s right there, and he knows what to do.
I’ve been thinking about the year to come. I want to turn my focus forward, not trying to discard my grief or leave my memories behind, but reminding myself that I have to think about the future too. So, I’ve come up with a project for myself this next year: “Widowhood 102: A Year of New.”
I’ve decided to commit that, once a week, I will do something that I’ve never done before. It could be meaningful, silly, small or important. My only two rules: It has to be something new (to me) and it has to be intentional. (Accidental adventures are often wonderful, but they aren’t going to count.) Will it help me? We’ll see. But thinking about it makes me feel a little more cheerful.
This will be my last "Widowhood 101" blog. My blog “Widowhood 102: The Year of New” will start in early June.
In the meantime, I heartily recommend that if you don’t have a dog, go get one.
Stephanie Joyce Cole