I wrote this recently while in the throes of a cold. In retrospect, I find it funny that I chose to place myself back in Florida to describe my misery. I guess the unrelenting heat helped the fever imagery. But it also speaks to my state of mind when I lived there. Anyway, rest assured, I’m feeling much better now.
I was sitting on my front porch, baking in the heat, desperately clutching a glass of lemonade as if it were a life raft. The sweat from the glass did nothing to assuage the perspiration on my forehead. My light cotton shirt was determined to cling to the small of my back. I felt lifeless and hopeless.
I closed my eyes, trying to resist the urge to start screaming in frustration, knowing that if I did it would be a feeble effort that would come out as a weak moan. And afterwards I’d still feel unheard. I felt like ten kinds of crap, and there was nothing I could do about it.
The occasional gust of wind provided no comfort either. It merely kicked up the dust from the dirt road out front. I felt coated with a layer of grime. I felt heavier, somehow, as if I could easily be buried alive if I didn’t move.
If I could only muster the strength to turn on the garden hose and rinse the clay off my bare feet, I’d feel so much better. Such a nice idea. Just out of reach.
When I opened my eyes, I realized he was there. An old man, standing on the crumbling sidewalk, looking at me, smiling. It made me jump. I felt a little chill. But only for a second. Then the bone-frying heat set in again, seeming to pour out of my eye sockets.
We’d met before. He was a tall man, and so thin you could see his tendons. Weathered is how I would describe him, as if he had been left lying in a ditch like a cast-off doll, in the wind and rain, for his entire life. He looked like he might just blow away like a tumbleweed. This man was made of cracked clay.
He wore a white t-shirt, and dark grey pants held up by suspenders. His leather shoes looked like they were on the verge of disintegration. And he had a fedora. Who wears fedoras anymore? Somehow that fedora irritated me.
He asked if he could come out of the sun for a time. I indicated the rocking chair. I didn’t really feel like I had to say much of anything. He was there. Where else would he have gone?
He settled in and I offered him a glass of lemonade, as you do. He nodded his thanks, and poured it himself. He rocked for a time, as the heat shimmered on the kudzu on the other side of the road. Even the rattlesnakes had taken cover, but the cicadas seemed to be buzzing inside my head. I felt dizzy.
He, on the other hand, seemed just fine. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him slowly rock. It was almost as if he were intent on some goal. The chair creaked, making my nerves jangle. That’s why I had chosen to sit on the steps. Creak. Creak. I wished he would just go away and leave me alone.
I began to realize that he wasn’t as fragile as I first thought. He wouldn’t blow away. No. He was more like tanned leather, or beef jerky. He would endure, quietly, yet stubbornly, for all eternity. He could easily be a thousand years old. He wasn’t going anywhere.
I began to feel desiccated, like a lizard that had been trapped in place until death came to shrivel it up. No amount of lemonade could quench my thirst. My tongue felt as if it were swelling and cracking, and I wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come.
The buzzing inside my head got louder as the pressure began to build. I felt a dull ache, and a suffocating sensation. I felt like I was drowning in hot, bubbling mud, and would soon sink below the surface, with no one there to rescue me, as the old man quietly watched.
He tried to hand me a dirty handkerchief, a grudging gesture at best, but I couldn’t have raised a hand to take it if I had wanted to. He thanked me for the lemonade, and said it was time for him to move on. But he’d see me again sometime.
I slumped on the porch, feeling like Appomattox the day after the battle, long before all the bloody, bloated corpses had been removed. I wondered what would be visited upon me next, as the cicadas continued to buzz and the unrelenting sun shimmered all around me, depriving me of focus and making recovery seem all but impossible.
In my freshman year of college, I was scared to death. I was away from home and family for the first time in my life. I was being exposed to new ideas. I was working toward my future. I was adulting with no instruction manual.
Fortunately I made an amazing friend, and we became practically inseparable. She was my lifeline. We were like binary stars. No pressure there, right?
She was from a different country, with a much more reserved culture. So when she occasionally acted rather cold, I cut her some slack. I’m a loyal friend, and that’s what loyal friends do.
And then one time she cut me out entirely. She avoided me and didn’t speak to me for about two weeks. I have no idea why. I didn’t have a clue then, either. That was the worst part about it. I had no idea what I had done to deserve such treatment. And since she was the only close friend I had made there, it felt like someone had scooped out my heart with a rusty grapefruit spoon.
Finally, her roommate couldn’t stand to see me so distraught, and forced her to talk to me. I was so relieved that I didn’t even question anything. I don’t even recall there being any awkwardness to our friendship after that. We just picked up where we left off. So be it.
During one of our breaks, she came to Florida with me and stayed with my family. Two years later, when I was studying abroad and she was bicycling across the United States, she left her bike in the garage of a total stranger in Texas, hopped a bus, and came to visit me in Mexico. In a time before internet, we would exchange 30-page letters with each other. I loved those letters.
I considered her my best friend. She never said the same to me. (That’s happened a lot in my life. A whole lot. It’s hurtful.)
Over time, we’ve drifted apart. Thirty-page letters are no longer feasible for either of us. Still, I continued to reach out, despite the oceans and continents between us.
She’s never been very comfortable with the internet. She doesn’t have a Facebook Page. She stopped answering e-mails at least a decade and a half ago. My attempts to connect have been ignored.
I still think of her often, but I’m no longer the girl I was at 17. I’m no longer willing to be the only one who makes an effort to sustain a friendship. I realize that I deserve more than I’ve gotten in recent decades. I know I’m a good friend to have. But I can’t force anyone to care.
In recent years, I’ve taken the Physics of Friendship much more seriously. Newton says that an object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless a force acts upon it. The same applies to friends. We are all objects in motion. If friends drift away, I used to try to be that force that slowed them down. Now my energy is much more limited.
Maybe I should stop viewing it as her pushing me away, and start looking at it as her pushing herself from me. Because I don’t need to go anywhere. I’m in a good place.
So when you feel that gap starting to widen with someone you care about, let ‘em drift, I say. You are not responsible for their motion. Don’t cling. Nothing ought to be that hard.
And then, too, letting go is sometimes all it takes for someone to want to return to your orbit. But mostly not, truth be told. Mostly not.
And that’s okay. As Max Ehrmann wrote, “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
Inside my body, an epic battle raged. A bacterial infection had invaded, and for the past three weeks, it had threatened to take over. And it had been a very near thing.
This had been the weirdest cold I’d ever experienced. I had a sore throat for only 20 minutes. I never had a stuffy head or nose. Every time I took my temperature, I never had a fever. The congestion settled into my upper chest for the duration, which caused me to cough, sometimes so hard that it triggered vomiting. When I talked, I sounded like Brenda Vaccaro.
But the absolute worst part was the battle that was waged in my head. Vertigo. The ground was like a storm-tossed sea. When I’d move, everything around me seemed to lag about a second behind. And I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t remember things. I couldn’t concentrate. It exhausted me. It scared me. All I wanted to do was sleep.
I started to worry that I had a brain tumor, but didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. If only I could sleep, I’d throw up a white flag and let the invading hoards take over. Whatever.
In my muzzy-headed dreams, I watched from a distance, looking down over the chaotic battlefield. They had orcs and goblins, and ringwraiths and trolls. My brave little hobbits were hard pressed to keep up. There was much growling, much bloodshed. It seemed that all was lost.
But then, at the eleventh hour, Gandalf appeared, shouting, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” and cast a z-pack upon the shoulders of the balrog.
The invading hoard screamed in agony. The hobbits cheered. The tide had turned and everyone knew the good guys would win. The music swelled. All hail modern medicine.
It took another long week to clear the battlefield of bodies. Even now, vultures still peck at the scattered remains. But, oh, the sunrise in the distance is a beautiful, beautiful thing to behold.
Ugh. I have a cold. And it’s a weird one. No stuffy nose. No fever. A sore throat for about 20 minutes. Then, chest congestion and coughing, coughing, coughing for weeks. And the worst part: vertigo.
The ground seems to be rolling like a storm-tossed sea. And whenever I turn to look at something, the rest of the planet seems to lag about a second and a half behind me. It’s messing with my head. I can’t think straight. I can’t focus. I can’t blog. And I’m tired. I’m so very tired.
And yet, here I am, at work. In a stupor. And my ever-lengthening personal to-do list is a source of anxiety. I feel like I’m not keeping up with my end of the marriage. All I want to do is sleep.
And, is it a full moon? It must be. Because everything is weird. I feel like no one, including my computer, is understanding anything I say. I’m struggling to make myself clear. And people are acting strange. No. It’s not a full moon. In fact, we’re approaching a new moon. Oh, who cares? Nothing seems real.
It’s raining. A jeep stalls on my drawbridge, backing up traffic. I call a tow truck.
Did I call the tow truck? I remember calling someone… I think I called a tow truck. Oh. Here comes the tow truck. Somebody must have called a tow truck. But is it the tow truck I called? Should I call off my tow truck? Screw it. They’ll figure it out.
It’s time to go home. I shouldn’t be driving. But I want to go home. My socks are wet. How did my socks get wet? Now my feet feel all clammy. Cough.
Yay. I made it home. The dogs are happy to see me. I feel like I’m in the eye of a puppy hurricane. I’m not sure, but I think one or two of them even levitated for a minute there. I let them out to do their business. I’m glad someone is taking care of business.
My husband is off finding us a replacement car for the one that got totaled a few weeks ago by an unrepentant idiot. I should be helping. I can’t even seem to help myself.
I let the dogs back in, and I head for bed, peeling my wet socks off my feet along the way. No human being can hug you as good as your mattress can. Finally, I can go to sleep.
Except, no. I can’t. I have to pee. Groan.
I get up. I head for the bathroom. I trip over one of the dogs and land flat on my face in the hallway. It’s the only thing I’ve done all day that doesn’t seem to be in slow motion.
My back. I wrenched my back. God, but it hurts.
Fuck my life.
I get up. Slowly. Carefully.
The dog refuses to apologize.
I go into the bathroom. I pee. I decide to take a leftover pain pill from a previous klutzy escapade as a preemptive strike for the back pain that’s headed my way. It’s hard core. It’s heavy duty. Don’t try this at home.
I crawl back into bed and sleep overtakes me.
Gently down the stream…
My dreams are the stuff of a Dali painting. But I don’t care. I’m asleep.
Until about midnight, when I hear my husband letting the dogs out. I’m sure he’s been home for many hours. I get up.
My back feels okay. My feet are dry. I’m warm. I’m home. I’m not as dizzy as I was. I still have the cough, but hey… progress. I’ll take it.
I putter cautiously into the kitchen, where my husband stands at the door, waiting for the dogs. I snuggle into his arms.
“Is this a dream?” I say, sleepily.
Because everything is so good. I love my life now. I love my husband. I love my dogs. I love my house. I love my job. Everything is just so freaking good.
“No,” he whispers. “You’re awake.”
“Thank you for being real.” I say. And I go back to bed.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream…
I’ve had this dream more than once. It’s really odd, as dreams usually are. But I always wake up thinking that it makes a certain amount of sense, and I kind of wish it were true.
In the dream, I’m about to be born, and I’m asked if I’d prefer the standard, or the accelerated life plan. Naturally, I want details before I commit. I mean, that’s a heck of a question to be hit with before you’ve even taken your first breath.
It turns out that the accelerated life plan allows you to get all the nasty biological functions out of the way up front, so that you can focus on actually living your life. For example, you spend an entire day sneezing all of your sneezes, and then you never ever have to sneeze again. Granted, that day wouldn’t be much fun, but think of the weight that would be lifted off your shoulders afterward!
Having had the hiccups for a full 24 hours once, I can verify that Hiccup Day would be excruciatingly painful toward the end, but what a relief to get that over with. Acne Day wouldn’t be pretty, so it would probably be best to do that in isolation. Headache Day might become rather controversial, because that could be construed as cruel and unusual punishment. I would dread Cold and Flu Day, but I could handle it, knowing that 24 hours later I’d be fine. I would just whine a lot.
Yeah, I’d probably sign up for the accelerated life plan. It would be nice to be able to stand up and face the icky stuff of life and get past it. I like the certainty of it all. “That’s me, done,” as a friend of mine likes to say.
From there on out, it would be smooth sailing, until, of course, the inevitable Death Day. I doubt many people recover from that one. If they do, what happens the next day? That’s the question.
Basically, people are very helpful here. They’re very kind. But don’t get too close. Don’t be nosy or get personal. Nice to meet you, now go away. It’s a thing. It really is. I’ll never get used to it.
Many people theorize that it has to do with the fact that we have large Asian and Scandinavian populations here. Those are two cultural groups that tend to like to keep people at arm’s length. I can see that. Sort of. But then, I’m half Danish, and only second generation American, and I’m not like that at all. I’ve always felt that there had to be something more to it.
Recently I was discussing this with my friend Lynn over dinner. She posited a theory that makes much more sense to me. (Apologies to Lynn for not taking notes and using direct quotes. I was too focused on my Lobster Mac n’ Cheese, and wasn’t expecting a conversation of such fascinating depth. But I think I got the gist of it.)
Lynn theorizes that the Seattle Freeze has more to do with the fact that many here are descendants of pioneers. When Seattle was founded in 1851, it wasn’t easy to get here. (I should put “founded” in quotes because of course the Native Americans were already here.) It was a rough, deprived, hardscrabble existence. To come here you really had to be motivated, and to stay, especially during the Puget Sound War, you had to be determined.
So, who came here at the time? People who were unsatisfied with their lives back east. People running away from something. People wanting to start over. Independent people who were compelled to make a go of it on their own. Misfits. Adventurers. Con artists. Entrepreneurs. Criminals. Rough characters. Nuts.
And then those people met and married and passed on those qualities, whether they be genetic or behavioral, to their offspring. The birth of the Seattle Freeze. This makes perfect sense to me. I may not relate to it, but at least these people have come by this quirk honestly. That makes it much easier to not take it personally.
I’d further expand on this theory by saying that it explains why the East and West Coasts are so completely different from a cultural point of view. The further west your ancestors went in this country, the more independent and determined they must have been. If it were me, I’d have gotten about 50 yards into the dense underbrush west of the Atlantic Ocean and would have said, “Yeah. I’m good. This is where I’ll be, if you’re looking for me.” Such is my paltry level of chutzpah. I am only here now thanks to the interstate freeway system.
There’s much debate about whether the Seattle Freeze even exists. I think it’s blatantly obvious. But now at least I get it, because Lynn gave me food for thought along with that Lobster Mac n’ Cheese.
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One night at the end of December, I went with a neighbor and her son to a tent city to feed the homeless. It is within walking distance of my house, but it’s hidden so well that I never noticed it before. And it’s an amazing place.
First of all, it’s not some conglomeration of drug addicts and the mentally ill. This is a family place. Children were running everywhere. It’s a community with a security tent, a communal storage area and kitchen, and even a place to gather to watch movies and have meetings. It’s not the ideal place to live, by any means, but if you’re down on your luck and have limited options, it’s much better than many of the available alternatives.
Aside from my neighbor, I didn’t know any of the other volunteers who had gathered to bring food on this bitterly cold night. And that made the experience all the more interesting, because in most cases, I could not distinguish the residents from the volunteers. What a concept.
These were good people, just like you or me. Most of them have jobs. They have the love of family. They are doing the best they can with whatever unfortunate cards they have been dealt. Having spent part of my childhood living in a tent, I know what that’s like. And I know how frustrating it is to have people make assumptions about you based on that tent.
And yet, through it all, they remain grateful. One charming gentleman said to me, “You know, they say that if you do good things at the beginning of the year, it sets the tone for the rest of the year. So if you are being this kind at the very end of the year, I would have loved to be around at the beginning of the year to see what you were doing then.”
That brought tears to my eyes.
At the end of the evening I went back to my warm house with my fully stocked refrigerator and my empty guest room, and I felt really, really guilty. What makes me so special that I get to spend this cold night with a solid roof over my head? What sets me apart from those people, shivering in their tents?