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Travels at Home

I love to travel. Following some winding street in a foreign city until I have no real idea where I am, just because I liked the way the doors looked, or the way the light reflected off the windows, or for no reason at all except that I wanted to see where I’d wind up, makes me feel alive. I’ve climbed ruins and looked out over the rainforest, amazed to know that the world looked pretty much the same from there a thousand years ago.

The smell of a place. The sound of people chatting in their language as they pass by. The taste of food I’ve never tried before. That moment when I realize that I am really there. Someplace utterly strange, and indescribably wonderful.

At that moment, I feel like yanking on someone’s shirt and saying, “Can you believe it? We’re here! This is REAL!” I don’t, of course (I am from New England), but I have a hard time wiping the ridiculous grin off my face. I close my eyes and breathe.

Back in my working days, I used to fantasize about what I would do with a whole year off. Gazing at my dusty pink cubicle walls, I would imagine myself in India, in France, in Spain. Egypt. Peru. I’d soak in the culture; I’d forget about deadlines and e-mails. I’d meet new people—maybe even have some kind of tryst. I would be changed. Then the phone would ring, or someone would show up at my desk needing something, and the fantasy would come crashing down. I’d be back in dusty pink hell.

With dusty pink hell a memory, I found my traveler’s feet even itchier than before. Temptation to blow every penny on a vacation nearly got the best of me when my severance check arrived in the mail. Just buy a ticket! Worry about everything else later! I couldn’t travel for a year with the money, but I could have a hell of a time seeing how far I could get.

Sadly, I’ve gotten a bit wiser as I’ve gotten older. I deposited the check and resolved to stretch it out as far as it would go. That meant staying home.

Wherever I am, though, my wanderlust leads me into interesting nooks and crannies. Years ago I came across a dusty old paperback copy of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at a secondhand store. Reading it made me more sensitive to the wonders hiding in my own backyard, if I bothered to look for them. While I’m not sure what Ms. Dillard would think of taking that curiosity to urban streets (I suspect she wouldn’t approve), I do sometimes think of myself as a backyard pilgrim. The image always makes me laugh.

My backyard wanderings took a different direction after I met a new friend at a networking function. (A note on networking events: I have yet to get much work out of going to these things, but I have made a number of new friends. If for no other reason, I recommend attending the schmoozy shindigs.) Relatively new to Boston, this friend had purchased a number of books with self-guided walking tours, and she asked me if I cared to join her on a stroll around town.

We met up at the Park Street T station one day early this past summer. While I was waiting for her to show up, I spoke with a guy hawking pickles from a cart and with a woman from New Zealand about what she had done while she was in Boston. My friend showed up, and we hit the books. I was a little skeptical that I’d learn anything new but figured that I could use the company and the exercise.

Before taking off, we established a few ground rules. We agreed to be genuine tourists for the day. That meant reading the descriptions in the guidebook aloud and being sure to look up and point at things. We made up names and backgrounds for ourselves (I was Louise from Kansas), in case we got embarrassed. We joked around about forgetting our sun visors, fanny packs, and white socks.

Then we headed for Chinatown. Chinatown’s my favorite place for cheap food, and I’ve wandered around after eating many a time, so I wasn’t sure if I’d get anything out of the tour. Thanks to the guidebook, however, we learned new things about the area and saw a few sights we hadn’t seen before. We got mooncakes and ate them (well, part of them anyway—we should have split one) in the new park, as we read about the significance of the plantings and the water feature.

Thorough though it was, our Chinatown tour didn’t take long, so we decided to take the Harbor Walk/Greenway tour. We gawked at the seals in the tank outside the Aquarium, along with all of the other tourists. We played on the metal sculptures and tried to figure out what they were (we decided that they were cosmic laptops). We checked out the view of the city from the US Courthouse. We laughed at kids playing in the fountains along the Greenway. We skipped through the arbor at Christopher Columbus Park.

Still having a good time, we then walked over to the Financial District, where we learned about the history of the buildings. We walked into Bond and stared up at the chandeliers shamelessly. Overpriced drinks? We don’t need no overpriced drinks! We’re just here for the view. We strolled around Post Office Square, taking time to sit in the park above the Garage Mahal. Look! There’s where William Lloyd Garrison wrote The Liberator! I wonder what’s in the Verizon building—let’s check out the lobby!

There were a lot of giggles that afternoon. It turned out that we didn’t need our aliases, and we ran into a number of other staycationing locals. Worn out from all the walking, but happy, we parted ways determined to take another stroll soon.

Since then, we’ve done several more walks, hitting the pavement from JP to Charlestown, checking things out that we would never do if we were really on vacation (we don’t wear sun visors and fanny packs in faraway lands). When they were here, we viewed the Tall Ships. We got a great tour of a synagogue in Beacon Hill from a friendly guide who didn’t seem to mind that we had two dollars between us to donate. There’s a statue in the Public Garden dedicated to the discovery of ether. I’d passed it countless times and never knew what it commemorated. George Washington’s sword is fiberglass, because it has been stolen so many times. If I were you, I’d skip climbing up the Bunker Hill Monument (the last time I climbed that many stairs, it was to reach the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence. That was worth it). Not much of a view from up there, but the beer at the Tavern on the Water is cold, and the boat ride from Boston is cheap and fun. I want one of those Victory Gardens in the Fenway. We have avoided Faneuil Hall like the plague. There are standards after all, even when you are playing at being a tourist.

Our little tours haven’t taken away my desire to take a real trip. Just the other day, I pulled out my passport and tried to see if there wasn’t a cheap flight somewhere interesting. Alas, no. At least not cheap enough for me. Our wanders have filled my need to explore, however. If you stop rushing and take the time to look up and point, it changes your perspective. Once in a while, I’ve even had a glimmer of that delicious shock of the new in my own backyard.

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It might not be Paris, but it should be smashing nevertheless. I am planning on taking one of those super-cheap bus rides to New York in the next week to meet up with a certain waiter while he’s on this side of the pond. Now that will be an adventure.

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You Still On Vacation? On Not Killing Time

B&W Where the Hell Am I

“You still on vacation?” the waiter at my favorite caffé asks me when he sees me stroll in on a weekday afternoon. I smile and tell him what I’m up to, and he remarks on the economy as he brings me my caffeine fix. That $2 coffee is often my big expenditure for the week.

The waiter is not the only one to refer to my extended unemployment as a vacation. Many people have told me that they’re jealous that I have the time to do what I want to do. Sometimes, especially when I’ve found myself on a sunny beach during the week or reading an interesting book while the Employed toil away, I think they’re right to be jealous. And I sigh with happiness.

However, a vacation this isn’t. Vacations usually have a start point and an end point. Even extravagant vacations don’t last a year, at least for people like me. Most people save up at least a little bit of money for a vacation. There’s a job to go back to, so you know how you’re going to pay the rent after you get back. And, despite the Staycation fad, most people plan travels for vacations. I know I did. These days my passport gathers dust as I contemplate whether or not I can afford a T pass this month.

So, no. My adventure bears precious little resemblance to a vacation. I didn’t steal a few hours away from the daily grind. I was flung overboard into an endless sea of time.

When you have all the time in the world, what do you do with it?

In addition to other personal failings, I am not a goal setter. I used to sit through seminars in high school where people would go on and on about the importance of goals. My eyes would glaze over, and I’d start thinking about lint. When asked about goals, lyrics to a Waitresses song would spring to mind: “My goals? My goals are to find a cure for irony and make a fool out of God.”* I had to catch myself before I spit that one out. Needless to say, I didn’t graduate with a shit ton of stuff I planned on doing other than going to college.

In the intervening years, I haven’t changed much when it comes to goals. I don’t have a five-year plan. I always laugh on the inside when I’m asked that question and think, Sorry, I’m not so into Stalin, before making up some kind of bullshit answer, tailored to the situation at hand. Oddly enough, I’m an expert at planning things for other people and making those plans happen in an orderly fashion. I just don’t like doing it for myself.

Going through life with no real plan can work out just fine. I like to think that by not focusing so narrowly on accomplishing x or y by the time I turn 40 that I’ve been a little more open to good things as they come my way. Given that, however, after a month or so of Unemployed Life, I wasn’t floating merrily through my sea of time. I was drowning in it. So I asked myself a few questions:

What do I want to do? What would make me happy today, and maybe tomorrow? What do I want to do that costs nothing or very little and will still make me happy?

I’ve always been a reader. I’m also a nerd. One day while browsing through the Harvard Bookstore with the guy formerly known as Date, it occurred to me that I hadn’t read a philosophy book in years. I had nearly forgotten how much I love the challenge of reading a head-scratcher. Huh, I thought, I have time to do that now. Why not? So I picked up The Phenomenology of Perception, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.** And I read it, all 530 pages of it, cover to cover. It took me about five months.

Like I said, I’m a nerd. A question that’s been swimming around in my fuzzy brain is how do we know things? It seems to me as though we trade too much in ideals at the expense of our lived experience. Here I am. I’m an American (sigh) woman, living in the twenty-first century. I suck at mediating, so I pretty much live my life here on Earth. Growing up in a family that believed in an afterlife, I’ve thought a lot about spiritual things, but if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I’d rather think about what to do here in the world.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that we are here. Now. We have these bodies that somehow work well enough to let us wander about. We live in time. We were born. We breathe, we eat. We have sex (well, we want to, anyway). We laugh. We cry. We worry. We get pissed off. Sometimes we’re happy, really and truly happy. Our existence is going to come to an end. We’re here for such a short time, why are we so obsessed with thinking about things that we have no way of knowing are real? Why worry about transcendence? Isn’t it a lot more interesting to think about how we experience life now? It seems to be more useful, in any event.

I don’t claim to have understood much of what I read in The Phenomenology of Perception, but I picked it up because he was writing about bodily experience as our source of knowledge. I also picked it up because I knew it was going to require some real attention if I was going to get anything out of it at all. And I could give that kind of attention for the amount of time it would take me to read five pages a day. So that’s what I did.

Truth be told, I didn’t always read five pages a day, but most days I cracked that book over my morning coffee. I puzzled, I thought. Sometimes I understood. What was really important, though, is that I did it. After I finished that book, I picked up another one.

Right now I’m reading The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, by Michel Serres,*** and am giving some thought to the limits of language to convey reality. Serres argues that our bodily experience is the only way that we know anything and that language cannot possibly describe what we sense. I haven’t gotten that far into it yet, but I can say that so far it is the sexiest philosophy book I’ve ever encountered.

I caress your skin, I kiss your mouth. Who, I? Who, you? When I touch my hand with my lips, I feel the soul like a ball passing from one side to the other of the point of contact, the soul quickens when faced with such unpredictability. (p. 26)

Maybe I should read this one at night.

Reading philosophy isn’t the only answer to the question of what to do when you have all the time in the world. It isn’t the only way that I’ve spent my time. Yet reading philosophy makes me happy right now. And when you think about it, now is really all we have.

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*The Waitresses. “Jimmy Tomorrow.” Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? ZE Records: 1982. Great song, great record.

**Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. New York: Routledge, 2002.

***Serres, Michael. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. Translated by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley. New York: Continuum, 2008.

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Hey, Grace! Adventures in Falling

Whenever he took a little tumble, this little boy I used to babysit for would yell out, “Hey, Grace!” and giggle before picking his little two-year-old body up off the ground. I’m not sure where he got the phrase, but I stole it. And in the past year, I’ve had cause to use it. It seems as though I’ve taken to falling down.

It started one rainy night at the end of September at Stony Brook station. I could hear the train coming as I tapped my card, and in my haste to get down the stairs, I didn’t notice how wet they were. I think I made it down two steps before my left leg, and then my right flew in the air and I came crashing down on the edge of a stair. Initially I didn’t even feel anything, but I saw the looks on the faces of those who saw me crash down. I also saw their shock when pulled myself up and walked down the rest of the stairs. Hey, Grace! In all honesty, I am really and truly grateful to still be walking, but I have to say that the permanent deep dent in my left cheek is an unwelcome addition to my ass. At least the gigantic bruise is gone. All that, and I missed the damn train.

In January, I took another tumble, this time down the steep, slippery steps leading down to the basement. I crashed on the other ass cheek, so hard I nearly fainted. My laundry went flying. Hey, Grace! I felt so woozy afterward that I actually called my friends, asking them to call me a few times to make sure I hadn’t somehow jarred my head when I banged my ass. My friends were only all too happy to oblige—and laugh at me. Thankfully the permanent results from that fall were not nearly as unsightly as my first trip down the stairs.

And then, yesterday, in broad daylight, on a smooth surface, with sensible shoes on my feet, I was walking one moment and splattered on the sidewalk the next. Hey, Grace! I scraped my hand, bruised my knee, and tweaked my shoulder, but otherwise, it’s just my pride that’s injured this time. There were lots of people around.

I don’t get it. I’m normally not such a klutz. If this continues, though, I’m going to need Lifecall. “Hey, Grace! I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”

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Do Your Glasses Match Your Underwear? An Adventure in Networking

Yesterday evening a friend and I went to a networking shindig at a bar in Beacon Hill. Once there, we got to talking to a young man. It turned out that he was also unemployed (shocking, I know), and so we talked about the joys and sorrows of being work-free. Just as I was getting ready to try to meet some other people, this woman passed us.

“Check out those glasses! Aren’t they fantastic?” the guy said.

I agreed, as they were indeed fantastic.

The guy went on, “Don’t you want to ask her about them?” And then, his voice getting a little suggestive, he asked, “Don’t you want to know if her underwear matches her glasses?”

Wha??? Eeewww! “Um . . . I guess I hadn’t really thought about that?” I replied, inching away.

The guy leaned in close, “My underwear is horn-rimmed, by the way,” wiggling his eyebrows above his horn-rimmed glasses.

I had nothing. Absolutely nothing. My face made an involuntary grimace, and I stammered. “Um . . . “ Just then, someone else walked by, and I walked right over and introduced myself.

Later on in the evening, the young man walked over to say goodbye. Since I’d given him my business card before the glasses-match-underwear incident, he said he would be in touch on LinkedIn or Facebook.

“Please friend me,” he pleaded. “We could all use more friends in this world.”

“Um . . .”

Yay! Sunshine and Tacky Things!

White Flowering Tree

What glorious days we’ve had in New England of late. Spring burst into summer, and I for one have been delighted to be a victim of the current economy these past few days. Yesterday I even went to the beach. Here are some photos from my wander through the Arnold Arboretum in JP.

Buds

Peaceful

Spring

Flowering Tree

Green!

White Flowers and the Sky

Hello, Yellow

 

I also went flea marketing with my family on Sunday. I so adore tacky things.

Eyeball
Eyeball

Lips
Lips

Log
Happy Log

Kitty Shakers
Kitty Shakers

Doll Head
Creepy

I'll Get You . . .
Nice, Friendly Face

Sleeping Gnome
Sleeping Gnome

I did see a few cool things:

Typewriter Keys
Typewriter Keys

Thank You
Thank You

There Are Things I Remember

Yesterday I braved the torrential rain to meet a new friend from one of my networking groups for coffee at Diesel. She’s unemployed too, and so we got to talking about various ways we spend our oodles of time. Turns out that one of the things she likes to do is observe what people do while on the T. Reading material, general demeanor, other interesting things humans do to amuse ourselves while in transit. We had fun exchanging stories about strange things we’d seen. One of her finds, however, was simply fascinating.

A couple of weeks ago as she rode the Red Line, she noticed a woman looking down at a detailed timeline. This timeline had the names of teachers, friends, events, and other memories. So far as my friend could tell, the time line appeared to be from the woman’s own life, and while my friend knew she shouldn’t look, she couldn’t help herself. As the line drew toward the present, there was just one name, a man’s name, in big letters.

“She was wearing an engagement ring,” my friend said. “That must have been the guy. Maybe she was trying to come up with something to say at the wedding?”

Structuring one’s entire life to lead up to meeting one single person, even an important person like a future spouse, seemed corny and misguided to us, but we started talking about creating timelines of our own. What would we include on it? Would we do it from memory, or surround ourselves with photographs, yearbooks, old cards, etc.? How honest could we be with ourselves? After all, there are some points in our lives that we would just as soon leave to the past. Would we show it to people? Who, and why?

Last night I thought some more about trying this. I haven’t decided if I will, and I haven’t answered those questions, but the idea intrigues me. Creating a timeline of my life might prove immensely therapeutic, or it might send me spiraling downward into a deep depression, depending on my frame of mind when (or if) I sit down to the task.

In entertaining the idea, I can think of some memories that would make me howl with laughter, and other that would make me smile. There are a few things I would have a hard time committing to paper. I’m not sure if I would show a complete version to anyone. I rather like the idea of doing it from memory and then going back to check the facts. Or, maybe even create two different timelines: the one I carry with me, and the one indicated by the evidence. Insights found in the differences between the two could be illuminating.

Like I said, I’m not sure if I’m going to do this, or even if I really want to, but the idea was interesting enough that I thought I’d share it. What about you? Does the idea of making a timeline of your life interest you? Terrify you? Bore you to tears? If you were to try it, how would you go about doing it? Would you show it to anyone? Why or why not?

OK, that’s enough computer time for today. I’m going to go out and enjoy the sunshine while it lasts. Gotta get out there if the timeline’s going to be interesting.

Adventures in Suburban Cab Hailing

I’m writing this from a suburban Starbucks. You can find me here every other Monday night, killing time after my therapy appointment. Aside from a Bertuucci’s and a depressing old Dunkin Donuts, it’s the only option. I started seeing this therapist before I moved to Somerville and kept seeing her afterwards because her office wasn’t far from my job. Even now, post-employment, she’s good enough that making the fortnightly trek out here is still worth it to me. That said, the prospect of the Starbucks wait always gets me a bit down.

I used to take a taxi to make an earlier train out of Beverly proper, but I refuse to do it anymore. The reason is simple: the taxi service’s dispatcher is a complete and utter idiot, not to mention a total sourpuss. I base this on a year’s worth of experience trying to negotiate rides out of her.

For starters, she never knew where I was calling from (I was calling from North Beverly, well within the service range). I’d give her the address, obvious landmarks, and any other information she requested. No matter what information I give her, the cabbie invariably wound up in the wrong spot, telling me after I’ve found him (I never had a female cab driver with this company) that he went where the dispatcher told him to go.

Then, without fail, her time estimates would be off by a factor of at least two. She’d say fifteen minutes, and it would turn into forty. When I’d call back to see if something was wrong, she’d inform that the cabbie was on the way and that she wasn’t responsible for traffic (of course she isn’t, but the thing is, these cabbies aren’t going far and the traffic at this time of night isn’t heavy. It just doesn’t take that long to cross town).

“Don’t worry if it’s going to take a while,” I said once, trying to be helpful, “Just tell me the right time so I don’t have to freeze, standing outside waiting for the cab.” It didn’t work. Once when I called to get a taxi to take me to work after I missed my ride, she forgot all about me. After four reminder calls, a taxi finally showed up an hour later, and I had to share a cab (but not the fare).

The last straw, however, occurred four weeks ago. Aware that it would take forever to get a cab, I called an hour in advance of when I needed it but didn’t tell the dispatcher that. “Fifteen minutes,” she said, after we haggled over the pickup spot yet again.

I was sitting in a spot where I could see the taxi pull up, so I wasn’t worried. Fifteen minutes turned into thirty, and then thirty-five. Even though I had time, I called, just to be sure she hadn’t forgotten about me again. “Yup. He’s on his way. Should be any minute now.”

Thirty-five minutes turned into forty, and then into forty-five. I called again. “You said fifteen minutes. It’s been forty-five,” I said. “Can you tell me when the taxi will be here?”

“He’ll be right there.”

Fifty minutes turned into fifty-five. And then into an hour. By this point, I really needed the taxi to get there, or I was going to miss my train. I called again.

“Listen. I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE! It’s not my fault the cab isn’t there yet. He’s stuck in traffic!”

“Is there an accident?” I asked.

“No.”

“Was the cab driver in Boston? It only takes a half an hour to get here from Boston.”

“No. He’s stuck in traffic. It’s not my fault.”

I’d had it. “What traffic? This is Beverly. You don’t get that kind of traffic at eight around here. And you are responsible for giving plausible wait times. I need to catch a train, and now I might miss it because the cab driver has taken four times as long to get here as you told me he would. So, again. When is he going to get here?”

“It’s. Not. My. Fault.”

“Whatever. Just please send someone in the next five minutes, or don’t bother.”

Finally, the cab driver showed up. He’d just gotten the destination. I made my train in seconds flat, vowing to never talk to that surly dispatcher again.

So here I sit in a suburban Starbucks, biding my time before the 9:23 train arrives. It might mean an extra hour out of my day, but an hour spent not dealing with that nasty idiot is an hour well spent. Besides, I earned $25 in Starbucks money for evaluating a Web site last week, so my latte is free.