Paver Stones

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A hundred and twenty paver stones from an unearthed patio are stacked in front of our garage door. I'm not bothered by their presence; no one parks in the garage, they're in the way of nothing. My husband Patrick talks about putting them on Craigslist for a while. He takes a photo but stops there. I feel proactive one evening, so I post the photo along with an appropriately concise description: "Lot of approximately 120 paver / patio stones. Each measures 15.5" x 7.5" x 1.75". $100 OBO for entire lot."

The price was Patrick's suggestion. It seems like a lot to me, but I know nothing about paver stones, and there are no comparative listings for reference.

A man named Bill emails with an offer of $25.

"Someone named Bill offered $25," I tell Patrick.

"Ask for $50," he says.

"We can do $50," I reply.

I don't hear back for two days. I assume Bill's boat has sailed.

His response comes at 12:30 am on the third day. "hi," he writes, no caps of any kind. "the only reason i offered you that low of an offer is that i got some of these same pavers for free - the owner told me i was the only call for them - i will wait to see if you sell them - thank you - bill."

I read and reread it at 4am, when I have woken up early for no reason. I tell myself that the reply is literal, that the anonymity of Craigslist inhibits Bill from knowing anything about me other than my zip code and a random series of 32 characters that replaces my email address. I suppose he can see the corner of our garage door in the photo but that does not give away my gender. Still, I feel the spreading burn of condescension that I so often felt as a young woman when a man decided to tell me how the world worked. All of it is concentrated into that one sentence: "i will wait to see if you sell them." Not, "let me know if you don't sell them," not even the more aggressive, "i doubt you'll sell them." Bill went with: "i will hang back and watch you fail. then i'll swoop in and do you the favor of taking your goods at no cost while smugly smiling down at your petty foolishness."

I consider my options:

Bill,

That's so kind of you to wait. I'm happy to send daily status updates. 

Bill,

I wouldn't let you take these paver stones off my hands if you were Robert Mueller and they were evidence in Trump's collusion with Russia.

Bill,

Wow—I guess I am in over my head with these paver stones! Feel free to swing by later and grab them. Tonight's chicken pot pie night if you want to stop up for a bite!

I imagine grinding the paver stones into a fine powder and adding a spoonful to Bill's breakfast every day until he shits concrete.

I reflect thoughtfully on my anger. I will not reply to Bill. I am a woman in America.

A Sort of Non-Gravitational Super-Consciousness

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During a recent bout of sickness, I spent seven hours watching Killing Eve on BBC America, which means I also saw at least 30 rounds of commercials advertising the same four things: the May Maytag Sale (though May is over), some slim laptop championed by a fashion blogger, the overly sentimental promises of a mediocre hotel chain, and Microsoft AI's partnership with Iconem—a startup that digitizes sites of cultural heritage. The Iconem commercial has popped up before—during screenings of The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu, maybe even earlier somewhere else. It irked me from the start, but it took this recent cycle of multiple Dayquil-infused viewings for me to pinpoint the source of my disdain.

The ad opens with Common (Microsoft's newest spokesperson) describing how artificial intelligence will be the future of historical preservation. His voice narrates a documentary collage of ruins being digitally reconstructed before our eyes: a Jurassic Park-like glimpse into a history that deterioration has not allowed us to fully experience. Then another voice comes in: a western European accent describing in English the particularities of the software and the importance of this dialogue with history. "Eef you donne know where you come from, you donne know where you go."

Entré Yves: representative from Iconem that we see digitally photographing sites in the field and using artificial intelligence to "steetch them together" back at the office. The ad depicts Yves as sort of grungy metro-Euro chic: a tall, bony frame draped in v-neck tees and scarves, a dark beard with a few grays demanding we revere their presence, bedhead from here to Prague. I don't want to be presumptuous about how the real Yves carries himself; I only know that here, in this ad, he is the portrait of a very specific kind of manchild: obsessed with his work and convinced he is changing the world and—because of that—cocksure that not only can he get into your pants with little effort, but that you are going to listen to him talk about the significance of his work for hours just to grant him the effortless opportunity to do so. "I need to make eet possible," he says into a wobbly iPhone cam, "because eets so important to do eet,"

By the third episode of Killing Eve, I could no longer tolerate the sight of this man. Naturally, you'd think I'd been burned by this type, but my distaste is far more nuanced. In my mind, Yves is a composite of three men:

  1. In Type: A guy I met in a bar when I was 26 and went on a single date with at a Japanese tea room (his idea). He was a nature photographer and talked the entire time about his travels and aspirations.
  2. In Appearance: A bony Francophile I dated for a couple years who wore many scarves and talked about himself in the third person.
  3. In Essence: The Spanish foreign exchange student that Linda briefly dates at the beginning of Singles. He tells her his visa is up and he has to return to Spain, thus inspiring a fling he leads her to believe will turn into something more upon his eventual return to America. As a token of her devotion, she gives him her coveted backup garage door remote. Days later she sees him at a club, a scantily clad woman hanging off his shoulder. From a distance he shrugs at her as if to say, Sorry, babe, that's the way love goes.

None of these men (least of all the one that doesn't exist) have caused me a lasting degree of bitterness, but have evidently left a lingering repugnance that would cause me to so suddenly bristle at the idea of Yves, who is so definitively in my mind a particular breed of infantile, emotionally-unaware garbage.

This is not meant to be an attack on the real Yves, who may be a decent person. I mean to call into question the false heroism bestowed on certain kinds of men. When I try to imagine that same commercial with a woman in it, going through Yves's motions, I cannot. Either a woman would not behave like that, or an advertiser would not frame a woman in such a way; I do not know which is more likely or true. Perhaps women have to try so hard for their work to be considered important that they don't dare exude the assumption that it is.

Yves may be only part of my aversion. To a lesser extent, this is a stab at the practices of television streaming, which subject viewers to the same tiresome advertisements to a degree that could (and perhaps, should) drive anyone into a state of agitated scrutiny. Even a single hour-long episode of a television show is often interrupted 4-5 times with the same commercial—enough to render it meaningless in the way saying the same word over and over makes it sound absurd. Is this effective advertising? Is the effect subliminal? Is my agitation and ultimately this public response considered a positive outcome for an advertiser, because I'm responding at all?

I return to the ad for clarity. Over the course of 15-20 additional viewings, my agitation passes through a kind of numbness and I arrive eventually in a sort of non-gravitational super-consciousness, like the ether inside Don Draper's brain. From this place, Yves is a tiny felt puppet and Microsoft is an omnipresent superpower peddling the humility of its technology and the humanity of its mission. The ad closes with the Microsoft logo over the tagline "Empowering us all," as though tenderly stroking our powerlessness. I begin to wonder if Yves is an artificially intelligent replicant, or if our world has been destroyed and we're already living inside a universe constructed of artificial intelligence and this is ad is an SOS sent from underground rebels. Are you reading this? How do I find you? How do I join the movement against artificiality?

Come to think of it, though, this may all stem from the fact that I'm a Mac user.

A Woeful State of Planning

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I have a problem with planners. Last year I purchased three, and none during Planner Season (November through January), when one has their pick from a bounty of pre-dated agendas that make you think: Yes, now I can confidently conquer this calendar year and emerge a better, more goal-oriented version of myself. I waited until March, when all that's left is florally bullshit or planners with no dates. Obviously, I opted for the latter.

The first was a 5x8, teal specimen made by Ardium. I probably fell victim to a facebook ad in a moment of organizational vulnerability and was appropriately punished for my spontaneity: the Ardium was charming, but too stiff. It wouldn't stay open on its own, which made it challenging to do all the tedious writing-in of dates required in a dateless calendar. I used it for three weeks. It had to go.

The second was a Passion Planner, which I read about on Esmé Weijun Wang's blog. It was stunning: large, pliable, strategically interspersed with goal-setting guides that would naturally stand in as life coaches, zapping me throughout the year with volts of inspiration. At the back, a stack of crisp, blank grid paper waited to be messily polluted with ideas. I made lists of albums I wanted to buy, sketched the blueprint of a coffee table I'm unqualified to build. From April to September I carried the Passion with me everywhere until one day at Barnes and Noble I spotted a

Red Moleskine Pocket Planner. I've always wanted to be the kind of person that keeps a planner in the back pocket of her jeans! And a red one, no less: a color that would fool strangers into thinking I'm more exciting than my wardrobe suggests. I used it for exactly two months because tiny planners are meant for tiny people with tiny ideas and I am neither.

Disillusioned, I went back to the Passion. It made the most dimensional sense, and also I couldn't live with having wasted upwards of $70 on planners I didn't use. The benefit of a dateless planner is that you can break from it for any length of time and have wasted no space. The dateless planner is like an obedient dog waiting outside the convenient store while you decide whether fingertip Bandaids are worth the extra two bucks (they are). The dog doesn't care; it'll be there waiting when you come out with your fancy butterfly bandages.

The planners of my past faced much less scrutiny. Aside from a diehard At-A-Glance phase, I have often used whatever planner was supplied to me by an educational institution. The last planner I purchased before this period of turbulence was a sort of travel-themed chunky number with little sketches of bicycles throughout; I decoupaged its mediocre cover but over time grew fond of its cutesy insides with their quotes about wanderlust. I used it to capacity and even got a little sentimental at its passing.

Here's what I think changed: most planning has moved to the web. My work meetings appear on a dreadfully utilitarian Outlook calendar, my personal stuff on Google, and local events stay in Facebook, where I will be periodically reminded of their impeding occurrence. ("Why don't you just put everything on your Outlook calendar?" my boss asks. I look at her as though she has asked why I don't buy a pair of velcro power-walker sneakers.) I balk at web calendars but keep them active because, as a person existing in whatever this era is called, that is expected of me. By this point I should have distilled all matter of my existence into one device that never leaves my person. Its constant companionship provides me with immediate access to meeting times, phone numbers, birthdays, recipes, library due dates, and lists of whatever junk I currently need from Target. This is, admittedly, convenient, but also epically dissatisfying and un-fun.

And—cloud or no cloud—I'll never believe the stuff of my phone has any degree of permanence.

But this is not quite about my luddism. On a luddism scale of 1 to 10—one being the kind of person with a smart doorbell and 10 being that guy who lived in isolation in the Maine wilderness for 27 years—I'm somewhere around a 6.5.  I own a smartphone, but won't use Siri. I'm appalled at the discontinuation of things like the headphone jack and the optical disc drive. The thought of getting an entire uncooked meal delivered to my door feels no different than paying a homeless person to shine my shoes. And I just referenced Siri though have no idea if that software is still relevant or if it's even referred to as "software."

This middle-of-the-road modern luddism is not a simple curmudgeonly refusal to embrace new technology; it is a terrible in-betweenness, a sticky tar of romance and nostalgia. I buy into specific technologies when it becomes clear that it is harder not to, but until then, I exist in this liminal space darkened by the presence of useless objects whose former relevancy lingers like a sad ghost.

The planner, I suppose, nearly lost its place in the hierarchy of needed objects but was resurrected, much like vinyl, by those of us unwilling to accept its ruin. It has been reimagined as something artistic and inspiring and fun, like that cool girl you meet at a party who wears overalls and plays clarinet in a marching band (consequently, this was me at 13, and back then it was far from cool—what changed???). Planners are a quiet riot against the onslaught of digital organization, a reminder that crossing things off an actual list will always be more satiating than its modern counterpart. (If you're not convinced just watch this FUN VIDEO.)

And yet, I am still woefully dissatisfied with the state of my planning. Given that plans predominantly come to being on the web, maintaining a planner is now a chore of copying things into reality. I prefer paper but also prefer a life in which I don't have to work so hard to exercise this preference. My struggle to find the perfect planner is actually a struggle to deny the planner's evolution, to stave off a future in which planners go the way of 35mm film. This will be a sad, colorless time built on the precariousness of a digital fantasy.

In the meantime, I return to my Passion Planner and its tangible heft, its expansive white spaces hungry for my ink and my dates and my ambitions. If I forget to update it, I write reminders on post-its that I stick to my laptop. The whole cycle is a masterpiece of mixed-media, guiding my voyage through whatever this era is called.

The true relevance of a Thank You note.

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My local Target showcases 68 varieties of Thank You card sets. I discover this statistic today as I stand helpless in the stationery aisle, one leg tucked behind the other, red basket in hand, staring at a wall of fluorescent-lit gratitude. I have not composed a Thank You card since I had a reason to thank birthday party guests for the "kaboodle makeup case! It's really nice!"—a task I dreaded annually, not because I wasn't thankful, but because the whole process felt insincere. We wrote the cards because our mothers made us; we all knew when we received one in the mail that a parent had overseen the process and perhaps even edited each response before dutifully licking and sealing the perfect little envelope. The only genuine aspect was the silent commiseration we may have experienced knowing we would all have to endure a childhood's worth of obligatory appreciation. I am now free from parental observation and purchasing Thank You cards because I recently defended my master's thesis, and I am epically grateful for the feedback and support I received from a variety of people along the way. I have decided that Thank You cards are ideal because the format will democratize and simplify my notes, limiting me from the ramblings that would inevitably unfold in a thank you letter. The card challenges me to the confines of space and, more importantly, theme—the ever-present THANK YOU on each card face—which governs all composition within.

While I anticipated the problem of choice, which now shadows all consumer decision-making, I find this array of options gratuitous. I search for something simple, tactful, colorful without exploiting every possible color. I rule out cards that are geared toward children, senior citizens, or people who think they have a charming sense of humor. I avoid exclamation points, smiley faces, and photography. I want to make a choice that says something between "I am so thankful I don't care about card design" and "I am so thankful I carefully considered this card design with your card-receiving experience in mind."

My eyes settle first on a cover design with simple cherry blossoms that I find aesthetically unoffensive, but the price proves my aesthetics are too in vogue. My second choice is a card whose design mimics an old airmail envelope, but something about the font doesn't feel right. An employee appears in my peripherals, straightening stationery boxes. She does not ask if I need help because my plight is not extraordinary—the wanderer stuck in the card vortex, nursing the best of intentions. I pick up some more boxes and scoff at the cacophony of each message: THANK YOU. It leaves no space for interpretation. "You," it says, "will accept my indebtedness whether you like it or not. And I will be relieved of some burden." THANK YOU. The words begin to defamiliarize themselves the way words do when you stare at them for too long. THANK YOU. I fall away from the present and recall the name of a mediocre Asian restaurant I went to once with an old boyfriend: THAN THAO. I am in a foreign land. "THAN THOU for all of your generous feedback on my thesis."

This would not be an issue, I think, if I wasn't so concerned with other people's opinions. Do I care less about expressing gratitude than I do about my vehicle of expression? I realize I want the card to say something about me. I do not yet realize that the nine minutes I spend in front of the stationery at Target says more about me than I am able to sort out. I know, beneath the fog of my indecision, that my choice makes no difference, but this thought is not comforting, it is nihilistic. I begin to think I cannot make this decision because I am actually thankless. Perhaps a truly thankful person would gloss over the selection once, eyes brightening at the obvious choice, and move on. Guilt curls up for a nap inside my gut.

The intercom projects a godlike voice over the store and I ignore the entire message except the last two words—thank you—which trigger a weird sensation and convince me, for a second, that my thoughts are so loud they have poltergeisted their way into the speaker system. I feel something between dizzy and cross-eyed and I force myself on a box of blue cards with no cover art, only huge block letters spelling out those magical words in a few concordant hues. Forthright. Transparent. Nothing to confuse my audience. Nothing for me to hide behind. All the ways in which I strive to operate.

Once I commit to that box I know I have made a bad choice, not on this style but on investing in a custom with which I don't entirely agree. It is not a bad impulse to express gratitude; it is a bad impulse to feel as though you must do so in a socially prescribed manner. Thank You cards feel insincere because all formalities feel somewhat insincere. As I load my items onto the conveyor belt I am embarrassed with my lack of ingenuity, but I don't put the cards back. I vow to redeem myself by filling their insides with candid messages that implicate me in a Wayne's-World-We're-Not-Worthy kind of way.

A girl whose face I will forget within minutes scans my purchases. I thank her. My words are weightless. Can gratitude even be expressed? It occurs to me that Thank You cards, and possibly all written and verbal forms of gratitude, may be entirely self-serving.  Am I making a huge mistake? Will these cards really be any different than the ones I suffered through as a child with my mother nearby, helping me think of adjectives other than 'nice'?

But Thank You cards are exactly that: nice. Knowing someone carved out a slice of their day to handwrite you a thank you note is nice; it makes you tilt your head and smile to yourself and consider saving the card for a few days or weeks before it makes its way to the recycling bin. These simple gestures hold an important spot in the hierarchy of correspondence. Perhaps some messages need to be nice so others can be profound. When I worry that I just wasted $4.99 on thoughtless paper goods or that my intentions lack originality and substance, I remember that by partaking in the Thank You card experience, I am helping to maintain the natural order of things.

Venti Confessions on a Sunday Morning

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At the risk of being banished from Portland, I have to admit that I sometimes visit my local Starbucks. In fact, I am currently drinking coffee inside its green and tan and matte black interior, fighting the urge to pull my hood over my head to avoid potential recognition. I even relocated to a less conspicuous table once it freed itself from a family of four so I can worry a little less about some acquaintance sauntering by on their way to the adjacent Fred Meyer, spotting me through the translucent window decals, and trying to avoid letting judgment simmer to the surface of their face. Why we (Portlanders) hate Starbucks: it is corporate; the coffee is burnt, sub-par, or sucks; there's no atmosphere; "I don't want to support X, Y, and Z"; the baristas are too fake or unhappy or underpaid; there are so many other LOCAL places to get BETTER coffee.

Why I sometimes go to Starbucks: there are usually available seats; the coffee is...fine—not as good as local, not as bad as Dunkin Donuts; there is atmosphere: the atmosphere of neighborhood people getting coffee for the sake of getting coffee; the baristas are friendly and never-too-cool; it offers the most diverse opportunities for people-watching; it's the only place where one can find old married couples drinking hot coffee from straws and sharing pastries in silence.

In all fairness: I did not grow up in the Northwest, so I don't exhibit the same pretension about coffee as I do about, say, pizza. I know there is better local coffee. I know Starbucks is the Walmart of caffeine. I know when I visit I'm supporting a giant machine. Sure, the coffee is not nearly as good as the hole-in-the-wall place I usually patronize where everything is organic and the tables are made from old doors and I can doctor my beverage with agave. And I do experience a unique sense of satisfaction placing my earned (and occasionally hard-earned) money directly into the palm of the friendly faced man who built that hole-in-the-wall from scratch.

But.

There is something raw about Starbucks. The more corporate and cookie-cutter the establishment, the more its patrons are there to satisfy only one need: the need said establishment supplies. No one goes to Starbucks because they're supporting any concept, or seeing to be seen, or because the ambience is particularly inviting. People just want their drink. I'm sure there are regulars, but the patronage is fairly anonymous. Like a gas station. And sometimes I just want to be nobody. And everybody.

End of an iEra

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After much stubborn deliberation, I recently purchased a new iPod. My former and now ancient iPod had been hanging on by a thin thread, playing music but draining a fully-charged battery in 45 minutes or less. I lived for several months with the ever-looming disappointment of losing my life's soundtrack mid-song and looking down at the device to find a dead battery icon taunting me from behind the little scratched gray screen. I tried to spin this slow death as a positive changea means to ween myself off a technological un-necessity. The original device had been a gift for which I was thankful, but apprehensive. Technology often represents something I will love (learn to depend on) and ultimately lose (it will break, and I will have to learn again to live without). While the general consensus is that it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, I'm not sure this cliché applies to digital technology. After all, I don't need an iPod the way I need, say, food, shelter, hope or a decent pair of galoshes.

The final motivation (excuse) for my new purchase was an upcoming three-and-a-half-hour train trip to Seattle, during which I wanted the luxury (and it is a luxury) of listening to music for more than thirty minutes. I ventured a few times to the Apple website to work up my courage,  browsing and then X-ing out screens before I fell to temptation. Eventually I turned the volume of my conscience down enough to click through the series: ADD TO CART, CHECK OUT NOW, SIGN IN, CONTINUE, UPDATE ADDRESS, CHOOSE SHIPPING METHOD, PURCHASE, CONFIRM (confirm?) CONFIRM.

This is what I ended up with:

Silver. Classic. 160GB. Refurbished. 3-year AppleCare. And a far cry from its predecessor:

White (ish). Classic (?). 20GB. Old boyfriend won as a prize in a employee sales contest in 2004 and gifted his winnings to me (overcompensation).

During the first three years of this iPod's life I exchanged it three times. Three generations of music lost to the wasteland of intangible information. Lucky for me, I had AppleCare (generational insurance) which allowed me to evenly swap the iPod literally no questions asked. Each time I made an appointment with the Genius Bar (don't take this out of context; it goes too many places), explained my dilemma, and the good-looking folks at Apple swapped my nonfunctional white plastic block for a new identical model. This last generation (pictured above) lasted five years, never once flashing the heartbreaking graphic of a frowning iPod with x's for eyes that marked the deaths of its three antecedents:

Technological Death Mask.

On a basic physical/emotional level, I felt attached to the music-generating-machine that had accompanied me around four or five major cities, two loves, two subsequent broken hearts, a dozen plane rides, and hundreds of long walks. But my attachment went beyond this familiarity and nostalgia, and even beyond my tendency to anthropomorphise inanimate objects (this comes from my mother who ascribed gender and feelings to everything she owned). The precise reason I experienced so much buyer's hesitance has to do with the sad face: I am tricked into believing my iPod has not only a personality but also fairly advanced emotional identification. The frowny face suggests the iPod is able to express sadness at its own demise. It realizes its death and bereaves, both for its own loss of self and the impending dejection its owner is slated to experience. This post-death emotional articulation is beyond human capability, and hence establishes loss on a level almost outside my understanding: The iPod speaks to us from the afterlife.

This may be the closest I can come to a spiritual experience.

The fact that I was unable to live out this iPod's duration says that:

1) I am a coward. I was unable to face this iPod's impending death because

2) I am way more attached to this iPod than the others based on its lifespan, the experiences we have shared, my sentimentality, its assumed personality, and the fact that

3) I spent many childhood afternoons lying on the grass in my mother's backyard, listening to my Sony walkman and dreaming of an imagined future when I had portable access to all of my music all at once. The iPod may represent my only childhood fantasy that actually a) stood the test of time, b) came true, and c) is more awesome than I could have ever imagined, hence

4) I am already in love with the new iPod.

Such is the nature of love and loss, I suppose. I didn't even end up taking the train to Seattle. Severe weather caused mudslides which caused Amtrak to temporarily shut down their rail service. Timing is everything.