“Widowhood,” or, a poem

I wrote reams of poetry in college and into grad school, and not all of it sucked. I wrote a couple of poems this summer, but they’re not yet fit for public consumption. My brother recently reminded me of this poem, which was published in Line Zero in August 2011. I wrote it a few months before it was published.

Widowhood

Yesterday I went to see your mother.
I drove around the block twice
before I could park and go inside.
That summer when the sun was going down
we stripped the leaves off the rosemary
twigs and smelled our fragrant fingers.
I remember the sun slanting through the blinds
and the blue hum of your computer screen,
the place where the Christmas tree used to be.
Your mother made me a cup of tea
and I told her about the people and the things
I have packed into the places you used to be.
That morning the phone woke me up;
I was lying in my polka-dot sheets when they told me.
I remember that the night before
I had been rehearsing conversations with you,
knowing how your face would be, your voice,
when you were already dead. I went on campus
where the cherry trees were blooming, and the rain
had made their petals a pale mush
on the sidewalks. I waited a long time
before I read your letters, and they made me seasick
like the hammock, and the waves, and the car
we drove over the mountains, and the music.
When I left your mother’s house, it was dark
in the street, but over the hills the light was still bleeding
from the white sky and the dry grass
blew in the wind like wildfire
so I said your name and put my hand
on the cold glass of your window,
dark and still like the shade under the trees.

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On anxiety

I happened on a series of quotes about anxiety this week. The speakers were longtime sufferers, psychiatric outpatients, veterans of talk therapy. One said, “Imagine if every decision you made had life-or-death consequences.” Another said that her anxiety made all day, every day, felt like the moment right after you trip, when all your muscles seize up because you aren’t sure whether or not you’re going to fall.

Anxiety, like most of the great and gruesome stuff, is different for everybody. For me, it doesn’t feel like a series of life-and-death decisions. It’s not the breathless stasis between losing your balance and hitting the ground, the myoclonic jerk that yanks you out of sleep. For me, anxiety is a voice – not a literal one, hardy har har – that refuses to let me sink into the moment I’m in.

It says:

That’s a beautiful picture of you, except for the planet-sized zit on your forehead.

He may have said he loves getting texts from you when he’s at work, but it’s much more likely that he rolls his eyes when he sees your name on his screen and thinks, Jesus, not her again, what does she want

You know those windowsills you just dusted? I bet they’re dusty again. You should go downstairs and clean them. Right now. No, now

You look like a whale from this angle. Just so you know.

If you leave that window open while you’re gone, someone will sneak into your house and wait in your cavernous basement and then murder you and your family after you come home.

You will hate yourself tonight if you eat that.

If there’s a fire while you’re out, your cats will die. 

You’re so comfortable on the couch with your Kindle and your tea. But wouldn’t it be even better if you straightened that picture on the wall? Wait, did you turn off the oven? You have to pee, don’t you?

Your father is calling you before nine AM, which absolutely, without a doubt, means that someone has died.

Your friend who always texts is calling you, which also absolutely, without a doubt, means that someone has died.

Your manager scheduled a meeting with you. The only possibility is that you will be fired.

You are only allowed to enjoy this moment – the last chapter of a book, an engrossing conversation with your best friend, a sweet moment with your husband – if your house is clean and organized and purged of clothes not worn in the last six months and books you’ll never actually read and aspirational jeans and lidless Tupperware containers and dry highlighters and old Christmas cards.

And on, and on. Maybe you’re really, really bad in bed. Look at all that cat hair behind the bathroom door. What if you never, ever publish anything again? Why are you still in bed reading about the Manson Family when you could be dusting the insides of your kitchen cabinets with a microfiber cloth?

My anxiety is background noise, an endless muttering reproach of You should, What ifWhy can’t you just. This year, I shut off some of the muttering by stopping, for the first time in at least 12 years, counting calories. I’m not sure when I last chose what to eat based on what I wanted, rather than what I thought I should have (or what I was craving, in a forbidden-love sort of way), but my age was probably a single digit. I ate more or less what I wanted in middle school, but I had already learned to feel guilty about it, especially since it was very clear to me that I wasn’t one of the slim girls. Once I became a high school and then a college athlete, I was counting calories and weighing myself like a pro. I either ate one Clif Bar for lunch or, less frequently, ate an entire bread bowl and all of its contents because I was literally starving. I had panic attacks if I threw off my calorie count by trying a bite of someone else’s dinner.

I think about all the energy I wasted. Not to mention all the pie. All the months and years I spent feeling ohsofat when I weighed approximately a kindergartener less than I do now.

Swearing off calorie counting worked for me. You can’t, and you shouldn’t, swear off human relationships, although whomever it was on Twitter who advised throwing your phone in the ocean as a solution to relationship angst was dead-fucking-on. My problem in this department is that it can take me a long time to believe someone when they say something along the lines of, “I don’t think you’re garbage, and I can more or less stand to be around you.” The trouble I have believing them is, of course, directly proportionate to how much I like them. I assume that casual acquaintances adore me. When I meet someone I really like, I assume that they find me frivolous or arrogant or annoyingly talkative or too blonde or whatever.

I’m not sure how to assuage this social anxiety, other than reminding myself that my own mind is not to be trusted. And to beg my friends to reassure me, once in a while, that they don’t just like me for my extremely clean hardwood floors or impressive command of Harry Potter trivia.

The solution to my OCD is pretty straightforward. It’s 60 milligrams of Prozac, once daily. That keeps the ceaseless murmuring about how I need to wipe down the insides of the cabinets or throw away anything I haven’t used in the last 16 seconds down to a dull roar. The result is that I can eat dinner and watch TV with my husband before we do the dishes. (I still can’t go to bed before we do the dishes. Don’t ask for the impossible.) It means I can postpone cleaning the house if something comes up – a date with a friend or an emergency at work. (Postponing cleaning the house was all but literally impossible two years ago.) It means, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I’m not tempted to clean the bathroom at three AM before I go back to bed. (Really. I did that.)

It took me 12 years to stop counting calories and standing on scales and to give up on the whole bullshit notion of wanting my body to look substantially different from how it has always looked. It took me my twenties to realize that wanting to clean the whole house every other day was not a charming quirk but an actual mental illness that also affected at least the two previous generations of women in my family.

The social anxiety is probably a combination of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and owning a smartphone. Until I work up to throwing my phone in the ocean, I’m going to keep using my words. They are all I have.

Postcard from Thesis Hell

I wrote the following for the Reed student newspaper, the Quest, on November 10, 2007.

Raw and unedited.


People have been asking me for months what my thesis is about, but I’ve decided “American identity and masculinity in postwar fiction” is a boring answer. A dull, tepid answer which makes me want to never, ever sit at my thesis desk again. (Can I just say, though, that if I found a critical article by someone else entitled “American identity and masculinity in postwar fiction,” I would be turning somersaults. Instead of constructing my own vaguely pretentious arguments, I could just quote somebody else’s excellently reasoned points! But I digress.)

My new answer to the omnipresent question “What is your thesis about?” is “Doppelgangers.” (Because, honestly, that’s a fucking rad word. Especially if you put the little two-dot thing over the a’s, which I don’t because I’m going to use that word maybe 1,000 times in my first chapter and Alt + 0228 is a lot of keys to press when I can just press one key and look a little less cultured. Don’t ask me what that “little two-dot thing” is, by the way. The time has long passed when I could have been a German or linguistics major—or, you know, when I had any knowledge about anything not directly, immediately, and necessarily related to my thesis. But I digress again.) “What else is your thesis about?” Well, definitely “pedophilia,” and certainly “incest.” In other words, I’m writing on Lolita—which, by the way, practically guarantees that I will have to write on Melville, Joyce, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Balzac, Poe, Freud, and Dostoyevsky. Because Nabokov just couldn’t keep his hands to himself.

Fucker.

Some words about my thesis desk: it has no books on it. At one point three weeks ago there were three—three—volumes of critical work sitting on my thesis desk, but as soon as one of them was 45 seconds overdue one of our ever-vigilant librarians swooped by and reclaimed it. So anyone walking by my desk will think, “Geez, that person’s not doing any work. She’s going to be SO SCREWED in May [not to mention November, har har har].” (Adding to this impression will be the fact that I have taken the time to tack up pictures and cutesy notes from my friends—time I spent decorating instead of prowling through JSTOR or the southeast stacks.) But I am working at my desk. I am I am I am. I admit I would be a lot more inclined to do so if people would STOP SLAMMING THE PRINTER-ROOM DOOR right behind my head, making me jump a foot and a half in my chair every time somebody prints something for Hum 110. I didn’t put the nasty sign on the door, by the way. That was someone else. But I agree with her wholeheartedly. Be kind to those hunched, hungry souls hunkered down at their thesis desks. Next year you could be one of us—and if I’m repeating my senior year because Nabokov beat my ass into the ground, I’m gonna be out for blood.

Saludos,

Eira.

Substance (Ab)use

Like the last essay I posted, I wrote the first draft of this piece in the summer of 2006, when I was nineteen.

Naturally, all discussion of underage drinking and illegal drug use is 100% fictional.


I am not a particularly enthusiastic drinker, although I might be if alcohol had fewer calories or I had a better body image.

I’ve been tipsy maybe twice, and both times were my mother’s fault. Her Lemon Drop martinis are famous, at least on the international referee circuit where she spends much of her time. She travels to Atlanta, Colorado Springs, Istanbul, and Beijing, always with fresh lemons and vodka in her suitcase. She sugars the rims expertly, sometimes adds an elegant spiral of peel. She has a book of cocktails with names like French Kiss, Lemon-Raspberry Twist, Cranberry-Citrus Squeeze. The names remind me of flavored lubes, marketed to teenagers whose goal is to do it in the back of a Taurus during an Incubus concert.

My roommates drink, but not very seriously. Exhibit A: For six months, there has been a case of Miller Genuine Draft in our fridge, twenty-four cans that someone bought A in exchange for a ride to Safeway. Even to someone who enjoys beer, MGD has a thin, bitter taste, much as I imagine urine would taste. All spring, every time we’ve gone to someone’s house, we have taken the MGD in the hope that someone will drink it. No one ever does, which puts us in the ridiculous position of having to lug the MGD back into the apartment when we come home from parties. We invite people over for the sole purpose of getting rid of it, but progress is slow. I refuse to contribute to this effort because a) beer is disgusting, and b) if I’m going to consume 200 extra calories, it’s gonna be fucking cheesecake.

By June, there are two cans left. A means to have one with dinner but forgets; when L reminds her, she looks at her cleaned plate and sighs. “It seems a shame to ruin a good dinner.”

J proposes rigging a trap for our downstairs neighbors, using the remaining cans to tempt them into a giant cage. My suggestion is to simply throw the cans from the porch whenever anyone outside is making a racket. We live in the kind of apartment complex where this will get rid of the MGD in a hurry.

“But then, if they caught the cans, it would be like winning a prize,” A objects.

“Wait a second,” I say. “This is MGD we’re talking about. Not Heineken.”

“Heineken? Why Heineken?”

“It’s what my dad drinks. It’s German. It’s a good beer.” I live in Portland, home of approximately 10,000 microbreweries, and Heineken is the only non-MGD beer I can name.

“I like light beer,” A says, but doesn’t open her can.

I’m not a big drinker, and I was at Reed for almost two years before I tried pot. A friend-of-a-friend named M marched up to me during a Star Wars marathon and thrust a pipe in my face. I was sitting, he was standing. He held the pipe at waist level and growled, “Just suck.” Everyone laughed. I laughed too, to delay the moment when I would actually have to suck.

Gallantly, J took the pipe from M and lit the fine crushed leaves, offering me the first hit because it was my first time. I inhaled, exhaled. Nothing. “Did you actually inhale?” someone asked. I tried again, felt the smoke fill my lungs, my mouth. I held it for a moment, as I’d seen J do, then exhaled slowly. Everyone grinned and patted me on the back, like I’d just run a race.

We watched the rest of The Return of the Jedi without incident. I didn’t feel different, but I used the weed as an excuse to eat as many Double Stuf Oreos as I wanted. “You don’t usually get stoned your first time,” J assured me, as though I might be disappointed. For the next several years, I would repeat this aphorism – You don’t get stoned your first time – as gospel. I had no idea if it was actually true.

The second time I smoked was April 20, a beautiful mild day. Unsurprisingly, Reed observed 4/20 with a certain amount of ceremony. At twenty past four, a crowd gathers on the front lawn, before the turn-of-the-century dormitory where L and I lived our freshman year. There are a few moments of breathless anticipation before a cloud of fragrant smoke spirals up from the crowd. People cheer. Love Reed.

I skipped class; A and I walked barefoot to campus, stopping along the way to buy magazines and sodas at the Sev. We spread a blanket on the front lawn and collapse onto it, digging our dusty toes into the damp grass. I have just slept with someone new, and I am tingling to see him again. He, of course, will assiduously ignore me until the following semester, at which point he will pretend that we had never had sex in his dorm room after watching The Deer Hunter. The Deer Hunter, incidentally, is the worst date movie in the history of cinema. Neither of us knew what it was about when we decided to watch it. I’m surprised I ever had sex again.

Our friend M appears again, producing from the pocket of his cargos a little tin that smells thick, heady, spicy. All summer, whenever we see M, he will pull that little tin from his cargos and say, “You guys want to smoke a bowl?” It will be at least a year before I smoke weed that belongs to anyone else.

This time, I see the smoke spiral from my mouth. I flop back on the blanket and watch the sky. Far away, a tiny, shiny plane moves north, toward the airport.

“Look at that plane, you guys,” I say.

“What about it?” I see A looking at me with amusement. It’s the not-so-nice kind, the kind you see at a sleepover the morning after someone has squeezed toothpaste into your ear.

“It’s really small,” I explain, and everyone hoots with laughter.

“You’re stoned, Eira,” someone says. But I don’t feel stoned; it’s just that the plane is so small, every angle perfectly sharp against the sky. A moment later, I notice the sunlight pouring through the leaves overhead: liquid gold, thick and honey-colored. The leaves are a hundred shades of green. The breeze makes them whisper and sing; it stirs my long hair across my face. But I know better than to point out the sunlight, the leaves, the impressions they leave in the air. They’ll just say I’m stoned.

Family dinner

I wrote the first draft of the following piece in the summer of 2006, when I was living in an apartment in Wimbledon with my best friend, her boyfriend (now her husband), and my ex-boyfriend (still my ex-boyfriend). Wimbledon is a huge, cheap apartment complex across the street from Reed College. We used to call it Wimbledoom. It was a crappy place to live, but I made it worse by inviting my ex-boyfriend to live in my apartment – in my bedroom – after we had broken up. For this and other reasons, 2006 ranks as my least-favorite year ever – although it was also the year I started dating Chris, so, you know. Little column A, little column B.

Here goes.


My roommate, Ash, likes us to have “family dinners,” which means cooking and, even less appealing, cleaning up. I like to go out to dinner, preferably to places where they don’t announce the prices with the specials. Unfortunately, this means spending money, and I don’t have any money, particularly since I rear-ended a Tahoe and did $2600 worth of damage to my BMW.

James, our roommate and Ash’s boyfriend, likes neither spending money nor cooking, which means he plays video games while we cook, eats, washes a maximum of one dish, and goes back to the Playstation.

Luke, our roommate and my ex, likes to cook ambitious fare like pad thai and pesto gnocchi with roughly chopped basil. These are usually pretty good, although they suffer from an excess of vegetables.

I make killer omelets, superb instant oatmeal, decent cookies, and fine macaroni and cheese. According to Luke and Ash, however, my specialties do not constitute “real food,” just as my pajama pants are not “real pants” and my flip-flips are not “real shoes.” Because I’m nineteen, I think the omelets and the cookies at least should count.

It’s June, four-thirty in the afternoon. I’m already hungry. A desire to bond with my roommates, save money, and use the last of the eggs finds me at Safeway, searching for stir-fry ingredients.

“Luke,” shouts Ash, across the produce section, “do you want yellow peppers or red?”

“Red. Wait, do they have green? What’s the difference between white and yellow onions, tastewise?”

A sober conversation ensues, in which Ash and Luke debate the virtues of white versus yellow onions. They discuss flavor, nutrition, price, and probable geographic origin, until I have to restrain myself from screaming, “They’re just onions!” Instead, I examine the nutrition facts on a bag of dried pineapple and am appalled at the number of calories. I am slowly, oh-so-slowly, recovering from an episode of disordered eating in my late teens, and I still look at calorie counts the way other people glance at the clock. I don’t even know I’m doing it.

James, who refuses to eat at the Pied Cow because their bagels cost three dollars, feeds at least three bagels’ worth into a lottery machine. He wins a dollar, wanders over to me, sees that the onion debate is still going on, and wanders back to the machine. In a year or two, he’ll discover that he’s really, really good at poker, and this will keep him much busier and more flush than the lotto machine at Safeway.

Luke heads off to the dairy aisle and returns with twelve yogurt containers balanced precariously against his chest. Ash hunts for non-dairy substitutes. She is a vegan this summer; in a few days, crabby from lack of fat, she will snarl at me for saying I prefer cheese to cows. James delays everyone by being unable to decide on a peanut butter brand, and then we are delayed again when he and Ash find the “reject table” (not Safeway’s term) where cartons of crackers and bags of pasta that have been chewed by rats are sold for less than a dollar. Luke is just as enthusiastic, throwing packets of Asian seasoning into the shopping cart: “We might use this sometime. Hmm, this might be good with brown rice.” Translation: We will never use this; it will sit in the cupboard, taking up space, until ants infest it and I throw it away in a twitchy organizational fit.

Most of those seasoning packets will still be in our cupboard in August when Luke goes to Costa Rica for the semester. We will try to stay friends when he comes back, but I will never quite get over the miserable confusion of sharing a bedroom after a breakup, the awfulness of being dully, hopelessly in love with him even though I know – I know – that I’ve wrung the last good stuff from this relationship and that anxiety and fury and despair are all that are left.

Home. Our apartment is full of things like papasan chairs, bicycles, a plush jellyfish dangling from the ceiling, a monumentally ugly wardrobe I bought for $15 and bullied James and Luke into carrying up from the street, cat toys, a hamster named Hobbes, and at least one copy of Steinlen’s Le Chat Noir poster. This is the time in our lives when we are sleeping two to a twin bed, so four people in an 800-square-foot apartment doesn’t seem half bad.

James’s laptop, as well as everything else he owns, is on the kitchen table. The moment the grocery bags are unloaded, he sits down and pulls his computer towards him, leaving Ash, Luke, and me to argue over the best way to cook the chicken. Luke puts way too many vegetables in the pan, so there is hardly any room for the noodles. Ash scatters spinach all over the stove. No one likes my idea of adding sausage to the stir-fry, so I sulkily cook one in the microwave for myself.

But the stir-fry is delicious, the noodles soft and tasty, the meat tender, the basil expertly sprinkled throughout. We sit around our folding kitchen table, covered in a cloth Ash’s grandmother made, and eat off our Goodwill plates, and I belong to these people, I can be shrill or silent or grumpy or goofy, ignore them, adore them, whatever – we will all wake up in the same apartment tomorrow, with the same ant colony behind the fridge and the same whiff of cigarettes when you open the bathroom cabinets. I know that in August Luke is going to Costa Rica, but although some days (and, especially, some nights) that departure is all I can think about, it doesn’t seem real to me yet. I think Ash and James and I will be friends forever, and I am right. I think my sweet summer boyfriend is terrific but probably not a keeper, and I am right about the first part and tremendously wrong about the second. I think our apartment with its framed art nouveau posters and its loveseat salvaged from an office building is pretty classy, and I am wrong. I think I will always remember this summer, because it was the first time that I made a family out of my friends, and I am right.

After dinner, we go to the Nickel Arcade, and I almost beat Luke at air hockey.

Words, words, words

Fun fact: In addition to being a Hamlet quote, “Words, words, words” was the tagline for my late, unlamented livejournal, which a friend once described as “a snarky gossip column about the only six people Eira cares about.” (I’m positive she meant that as a compliment.)

Anyway, since words, words, words are what I do and what I love, I set myself a goal for this year: to read more good books, especially novels. I never used to have to set goals like that; I just read and read, like water running downhill. But then came Twitter and Wikipedia, and my attention span hasn’t been the same since 2009. So this year, rather than just rereading Harry Potter over and over again, I bought some new books and tucked in, giving myself permission to abandon them if I wasn’t totally entranced after about 20 pages (because what am I, Dr. FreeTime?).

Thank God for Kindle samples, because I started and gave up on many, many more books than are represented here. I also read a bunch of semi-trashy true crime books, some entertaining-but-forgettable fare like most of John Green’s oeuvre, and some really awful stuff that I still don’t know why I finished (like the bewilderingly overrated Girl on a Train). But here are a few of my favorites of the last several months, unabashedly and ardently recommended.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer.* The Interestings gets an asterisk because I haven’t actually finished it – I’m about halfway through. But I’m so captivated by Wolitzer’s superbly-developed characters, so charmed by their relationships, which are absolutely and wrenchingly believable, that I want everyone to read this book so we can all talk about it. I’ve been frantically highlighting as I read, especially when Wolitzer describes the relationship between Ethan Figman and Jules Jacobson, childhood friends who pass a nugget of semi-required love back and forth into their fifties. “Because when things go bad,” Ethan muses, “I revert to the desire I’ve always held – the desire for you – which I will hold until the day I die.”

The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger. I love beautifully-written nonfiction, and I really love disaster stories, so I don’t know why it took me so long to read Junger’s classic about the disappearance of the Andrea Gail. It did not disappoint. When The Perfect Storm was first published, Junger was compared to Hemingway, which seems strange to me. Because he wrote about the ocean? Because there are swordfish in The Perfect Storm? Although the subject matter is very different, in terms of research, pacing, and balance between what can reasonably be assumed and what can actually be known, The Perfect Storm reminds me more of In Cold Blood than any other book. Especially notable is the passage on what it feels like to drown.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt. I was pretty depressed when I finished this book, because a) I was done reading it and b) Donna Tartt was my age when she wrote it, and never in my life have I written something this smashing. OK, The Secret History is a little self-consciously overdramatic, but that doesn’t detract from its charm. It’s about a group of classics students at a New England liberal arts college who commit murder and then have to cover it up. The Secret History has romance, incest, class warfare, ancient Greek in-jokes, dead bodies, international intrigue, coke, and gay stuff. It’s like The Talented Mr. Ripley set at Reed College.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. All right, I’ve read this book before – several times – but not since 2008, when I wrote my undergraduate thesis on it. I was pleased but not surprised to find it just as messy, hilarious, heartbreaking, and gorgeous as it was the last time I put it down. Whole passages of this book are tattooed on my brain, lovely and hysterical and unforgettable in how they manage to be both intensely relatable and totally alien. Lolita is the best book ever written in English. Don’t come to me with your Woolf, your Pynchon, your Joyce, your Dickens. Lolita. Repeat till the page is full, printer.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Donna Tartt is so good, she makes the list twice. Her most recent novel, The Goldfinch, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. This one is about a precocious and maybe-slightly-sociopathic boy named Theo who survives an explosion in an art museum that kills his mother. He emerges from the disaster carrying a Dutch masterwork called (you guessed it) The Goldfinch, which he hides, mostly under his mattress, for years. There is so much at play in this book – class consciousness, an organized crime syndicate in Las Vegas, teenagers on acid, an international drug heist, Russian mobsters, a shady antiquities business reminiscent of The Man in the High Castle, more gay stuff – that it’s hard to describe what The Goldfinch is about. It’s addictively readable, memorable, heartbreaking, and suspenseful in equal measure.

Mick Harte Was Here, Barbara Park. I first read Mick Harte Was Here when I was in middle school, which makes sense, because this is a YA book about an eighth-grade girl whose seventh-grade brother is killed in a bicycle accident. Its depiction of loss is so searingly real: the unendurable awkwardness of the empty chair at the breakfast table, the dreams that feel simultaneously outlandish and perfectly sensible, the numb weirdness of seeing the world tick on around you in the immediate aftermath of a private catastrophe. I reread this book in one sitting earlier this year, and realized about halfway through that my whole face was glazed with tears and even my glasses were wet. It’s not just cathartic or emotionally manipulative, though – it’s genuinely great writing, with an unforgettable first-person narrator. My favorite example of a YA novel that transcends its genre (other than Harry Potter, of course).

On birthdays and other milestones

I turn twenty-nine tomorrow, and all morning I’ve been trying to remember what I did the day I turned nineteen.

On my eighteenth birthday, I went to La Fondue with Katie, Shar, and Jamie, and Shar stood up in the middle of the restaurant and sang “Happy Birthday” in her perfect, golden voice, and everyone in the dining room fell silent, turning in their chairs to look. When I was eighteen, I had long, blond hair; I still wasn’t wearing my glasses, even though I really needed them; I was very slim and I wore tight jeans and lots of black. I had probably been to the gym within hours of that birthday dinner. Jamie gave me a glossy eight-by-ten of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean; I kept it on my desk for years.

On my twentieth birthday, Chris sent me a teddy bear from the Vermont Teddy Bear Company. She had a red velvet ribbon around her neck, and nine years later, she lives on my dresser, not fifteen feet from where I sit right now. Ashley wrapped my presents in newspaper and stacked them outside my door. Among these presents was a plastic tiara and matching earrings, like a set you would give to a kindergartener. We dressed up and went to Papa Haydn, the same place where Chris is taking me to dinner tomorrow night.

I remember twenty-one, when my mother and my aunt took me to Las Vegas and we smoked Nat Shermans and drank martinis; I remember twenty-two, when Rich spilled most of a bottle of red wine on my parents’ white carpet. I remember twenty-four, when Ashley and Matthew got in a screaming argument about misandry in the car on the way home from Papa Haydn. I remember eleven, when I tried to throw a huge co-ed party like the most popular kids in my class, but almost no one came, and I ended the day crying in a pink daisy-print dress. I remember seventeen, barefoot on a beach in Valparaiso, Chile, dancing and kissing a dark-haired boy named Sebastian, who took a silver ring off his finger and put it on mine and asked me over and over again to marry him. I remember twenty-eight, last year, when I sat at a bar surrounded by my friends and afterwards a few of them took me out to dinner, including Ashley, seven months pregnant and beautiful with her elegant hands and long, dark hair. I remember twelve, when Ben sat beside me in the car on the way back from the restaurant with the bellydancer, his thigh warm against mine. That was the year he kissed me on the cheek. It’s been more than fifteen years, but I think a lot about which cheek it was. I think it must have been the right one.

I remember twenty and twenty-one and twenty-two and eleven and twelve and seventeen and eighteen, but I don’t remember nineteen. It took me a while this morning to realize why that bothered me, and I think it must be because it was the last of my birthdays that I could, conceivably, have spent with Ben, because it was the last one for which he was alive. By the time Chris sent me the teddy bear and Ash wrapped my presents in newspaper, he was dead. I’m ten years older now than I was when he died. I’m nine years older than he will ever be. And that gap will just keep growing. I’ve had almost a decade to get used to that idea, but I can’t.

I don’t remember what I was doing on July 26, 2005, but I probably wasn’t with Ben. I was probably out to dinner with my parents, or eating gelato in Los Gatos with Katie and Shar, or on the phone with my then-boyfriend (for my twentieth birthday, he got me a bike he found by the dumpster, which I think is all you really need to know). But I wish I had been with Ben, because we probably would have taken pictures. He might have written me a card, and I might have saved it. I wish I’d spent more birthdays, more New Year’s Eves, more Fourth of Julys, more Tuesdays and Fridays with Ben for the same reason I wish I’d gone to prom with him – because then there would be pictures, there would be memories, not just mine but other people’s, and we could all play, “Hey, remember when – ?”

Last summer I found my eighth-grade yearbook and was downright pissed at myself for not getting Ben to sign it. I think we were pissed at each other when we graduated from eighth grade; we’d been close for years, and our friendship had gone through the same dramatic fits and starts as any of my other middle-school relationships. So in 2000, for whatever reason, I snubbed him at the yearbook signing or he snubbed me, and in 2004 I didn’t ask him to my prom, because someone had told me he wouldn’t want to go with me. And in 2005 I spent my nineteenth birthday at dinner with my parents, or eating gelato in Los Gatos, or on the phone with my boyfriend in Oregon, when I could have spent it with Ben. I took him for granted – I just assumed he would be there for my next birthday (not to mention his next birthday). Just as I assumed he would be there for his graduation, not just from college but probably from grad school, too. I assumed he’d be there when I finished my PhD, when I got married, when his brother got engaged, when I bought a house, when he founded a company, when I published my first short story. And instead.

But what are you going to do? Ask people to sign your yearbook, come to your birthday party, pose for this picture in case they die next month? So many of us say “I love you” right before we hang up or before we close the door not just because we do, but because, if one of us dies before we see each other again, we want “I love you” to have been the last thing we said.

I’m not sure what the last thing I said to Ben was, but it was probably, “OK, bye,” or, “See you Thursday,” because, you know, I was nineteen and it hadn’t yet occurred to me that someone could really and truly and actually die between one minute and the next. That you could wake up one morning to a ringing phone and find out that your life, and the lives of so many others, had irrevocably changed between the time you went to sleep and the time you woke up.

But maybe it’s better than I didn’t know; that neither of us did. When I look back on it, we could have done a lot worse than, “See you Thursday.” There is hope, and happiness, in those words.

 

Kill Your Clutter: An Illustrated Guide

Welcome back, readers. My last several entries have been about me: my life, my family, my career. This entry is about my bathroom, so it won’t be personal at all. (Pause for laughter.) Actually, it’s about organizing your bathroom. Since I’m a gifted amateur rather than a professional organizer, I don’t have any case studies to go by; instead, you get me and my bathroom.

Depending on how many bathrooms you have (and how many overnight guests you have), you may be the only person who sees your bathroom. But you’ll see it all the time. If you’re like me, you’ll see it maybe twice an hour. So it shouldn’t suck. On the contrary, it should be a pleasant, organized space devoid of things you don’t use or like, where the things you do use and do like fall easily to hand. How to achieve this miracle?

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Ahhh.

1. Purge.

Maybe I shouldn’t have used this word in the context of a bathroom. Oh, well. Take everything in your medicine cabinet, everything under your sink, everything in your vanity or bathroom cabinets or whatever and dump it on the floor. You need to be able to see what you’ve got.

Now, excepting rarely-used but totally-necessarily items like medication and really expensive bubble bath, toss everything you haven’t used in the last month or two. In particular, toss anything past its expiration date. (Did you know mascara only lasts three months once it’s opened?) If you have duplicates (and you probably will), toss anything that’s almost cashed; stash the others out of the way. (More on this later.)

Don’t allot valuable space to items you know, in your heart, that you won’t use. Don’t keep perfectly good lip gloss if you only wear lip stain. Don’t keep pads when you only wear tampons. You get the idea.

2. Organize.

Before you put things back, it’s worth running a microfiber dust cloth or a couple of antibacterial wipes over the shelves in your medicine cabinet, or the insides of your drawers. I’ve been known to vacuum the insides of my drawers, but I’m a freak.

Next, replace your lean-and-mean toiletry collection, keeping the items you’ll use most near to hand. I keep my toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen, moisturizers, comb, hairbrush, and nail file in the medicine cabinet or in the top drawer of the built-in vanity. Lesser-used items like hair clips, nail polish, and razors (it’s winter, don’t make me laugh) get tucked toward the back of drawers. Don’t make life harder for yourself by keeping your toothbrush behind 12 other things on the highest shelf. Life is hard enough.

Our bathroom doesn’t have much storage space, so Chris hung this shelf to give us more room to spread out. On the top shelf is an awkwardly tall bottle of lotion (worth it, because it is the best lotion), my makeup brushes in a mug, and extra towels. For the bottom shelf, Chris found a wooden tray to organize his shaving things.

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Our built-in vanity has three drawers. For the top drawer, I bought this adjustable drawer organizer to keep smaller items, mostly makeup and hair ties, from ending up in a jumbled mess at the very back of the drawer. The result makes it easy to find what I need when I’m getting ready.

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Fortunately, I’m a minimalist when it comes to makeup.

For the shower, I’m a fan of those hanging organizers you slip over the shower head, because they keep toiletries from piling up along the edge of the tub and then getting knocked every which way. Plus, if you corral your toiletries in a shower organizer, you don’t have to move them out of the way when you clean the shower.

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The sketchy-looking plastic bottle is full of two parts white sugar and one part olive oil – the best body scrub I’ve ever experienced. Other than that: one shampoo, one conditioner, one face wash, and one bubble bath. Keep things simple to keep the clutter from taking over your life shower.

Now, remember those duplicates you found in step #1? Put them in a plastic bin and stick them on a closet shelf, or under your bed, or under the bathroom sink – not so far away that you’ll forget about them, but out of the way of your daily routine. This became essential for us when we started buying toiletries in bulk from Amazon and had to find somewhere to put the 24 bars of soap and six packages of deodorant that all arrived at once. I recommend storing your spare toiletries in something made of transparent plastic, so you don’t forget what you have. Even with this system, though, I occasionally end up with two dozen toothbrushes or something equally absurd.

Bulk toiletries, vitamins, and medicines hanging out in this plastic three-drawer chest in the closet.
Bulk toiletries, vitamins, and medicines hanging out in this plastic three-drawer chest in the closet.

I’ve posted about cleaning before, so I’ll make this quick: Rather than exhaust/disgust myself spending an hour cleaning the bathrooms every week, I keep a container of Clorox cleaning wipes in every bathroom. Once a day*, run a couple of wipes over the sink, counter, toilet, and the edge of the tub, and you’ll almost never have to do that really deep bathroom cleaning that makes everyone want to drown themselves in Lysol. And clean bathrooms really impress houseguests. At least they always impress me.

*You can probably do it less often if you a) don’t have OCD or b) don’t share your home with any men.

OK, we’re done with the bathroom. The same two rules (purge, then organize) apply to any space you might want to organize – jewelry collection, linen closet, kitchen, office, garage, glove box, Twitter feed – but all in good time. I think my next project will be tackling the closet.

In Retrospect

eira and sappho with tree

I’ve neglected my blog these last several months, partially because I couldn’t think of anything terribly compelling to write about. When I mentioned this to a friend, she said she enjoyed my old LiveJournal because it seemed like, “a snarky gossip column about my friends, by my friend.” And so it was. But it was also friends-locked. You’ll have to get your gossip in person now, readers.

A few things I’ve been doing since June instead of blogging:

1. Writing business plans.

2. Polishing my dissertation for publication as a book.

3. Landscaping my backyard.

4. Sitting in a red Adirondack chair in my backyard, drinking coffee and reading true crime.

5. Paying off my credit cards.

6. Getting a new tattoo.

7. Developing strength-training routines around the armchair in our bedroom. (Hello, single-leg squats and triceps dips!)

8. Watching Breaking Bad.

9. Rereading my favorite Stephen King story, “A Good Marriage,” and discovering that it will soon be a movie! Omgomg.

10. Going for a row on the Willamette with Portland Women’s Rowing. And not catching a single crab (oar-wise or otherwise).

Now, since one list per entry isn’t enough, I’m going to do that old lj meme, “Year in Retrospect.” This is probably my sixth or seventh year doing it.

1. What did you do in 2013 that you’d never done before?

Was laid off. Finished a PhD. I guess those two more or less cancel each other out.

2. Did you keep your New Year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I don’t make resolutions; I make year-long to-do lists. If you think about it for a while, I think you’ll agree they’re not the same. My to-do list for 2013 included (reading from the Moleskine now): “PhD” (check), “pursue consulting career” (check), “publish ‘The Best’ online” (nope), “explore pub’ing opps for diss” (check), “pay off cc debt” (working on it), and “ST [strength-train] 2/week” (check). I’ve already made next year’s list. It’s pretty boring: finish paying off credit card debt, publish my book (Choose Your Own Adventure), and publish “The Best” online.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

Nope.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

No.

5. What countries did you visit?

None.

6. What would you like to have in 2014 that you lacked in 2013?

An awesome, flexible, lucrative career.

7. What dates from 2013 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

In April, I was laid off from my job at MasterPlans, which was terrifying, because Chris and I were waiting to hear whether his company would be acquired, and by whom. We didn’t know where we’d be living in a month or what Chris would be doing for work, and now we didn’t know what would be doing, either. We were relying on my income (see: startup), and now I had to file for unemployment. Fortunately, I was offered the first and only job I applied for after being laid off, and I think I collected unemployment for all of three weeks.

In May, Chris’s company was acquired by Twitter.

In June, I finished my PhD. I know, I know, blahblahblah PhD blahblahblah.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Ibid.

9. What was your biggest failure?

I can’t think of any big failures this year. If you can, don’t remind me.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

I didn’t fall off a single swiveling chair.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

I’m really tempted to say a Hitachi Magic Wand. (Hi, Mom and Dad!) But it was probably the elliptical.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

As always, my boring sappy list includes my partner, my best friends, my parents, my brother, my aunt, and my cousin. My adviser, Colin, has been an inexhaustible source of brilliance, assurance, and good cheer.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

We have a neighbor who’s pretty annoying.

14. Where did most of your money go?

Mortgage payments, cocktail rings, takeout, Anthropologie dresses. Not necessarily in that order.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Finding a new job! Not having to leave Portland! Hiring a housekeeper! Going to Carmel with Chris!

16. What songs will always remind you of 2013?

Tegan and Sara and Tanlines. OK, those aren’t songs. But at least I listened to music this year. Also “Rosalinda’s Eyes” by Billy Joel and “Poprocks and Coke” by Green Day.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

i. happier or sadder? About the same.

ii. thinner or fatter? About the same.

iii. richer or poorer? Richer!

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?

Now that it’s cold and getting dark around 3:30, I wish I’d spent more time in the backyard, even though I spent quite a lot of time out there. Oh, well. It’ll still be here in the spring.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Cleaning.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?

In San Jose with my family, drinking Champagne and Irish coffee.

21. How will you be spending New Year’s Eve?

Anybody want to come over and play Cards Against Humanity?

22. Did you fall in love in 2013?

Nope.

23. How many one-night stands?

None, sigh.

24. What was your favorite TV program?

Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad.

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

Nope.

26. What was the best book you read?

I reread The Historian and Harry Potter, which are both so, so good.

27. What were your greatest musical discoveries?

Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob.

28. What did you want and get?

A new job that would allow me to work from home, a great acquisition deal for Chris’s company, the ability to stay in Portland, a new tattoo.

29. What did you want and not get?

Freedom from debt.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?

Blackfish is a recent standout.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 27 on July 26th. I cleaned the house, opened a bottle of wine, and went out to dinner with Chris, Ash, and James.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Less debt? More money? More one-night stands? Just kidding.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2013?

Fit-and-flare dresses, statement jewelry, ballet flats.

34. What kept you sane?

Exercise. Time to myself, reading O, The Oprah Magazine and Real Simple. My Miele vacuum.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

I love following the Windsors. I’m such a dork. My areas of trivia mastery are Harry Potter and the royal family.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?

Marriage equality and reproductive rights.

37. Who did you miss?

Jack moved to Florida. Come back, Jack! My brother moved to Virginia. Come back, Sean!

38. Who was the best new person you met?

Geez, have I met anyone new this year?

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2013:

When you have absolutely no idea how things will shake out, it’s best not to worry about them. Instead, go for a hike, take a shower, and open some wine.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year:

If you should fall, you know I’ll be there.

41. What was your favorite moment of the year?

Walking into the restaurant where we had dinner after my graduation and having the hostess say, “Dr. Long and party?”

42. What was your least favorite moment of the year?

The unbelievably stressful run-up to the acquisition.

43. Where were you when 2013 began?

Since I can’t remember, I was probably asleep.

44. Who were you with?

Chris.

45. Where will you be when 2013 ends?

I hope, playing a game and drinking Champagne with friends and family.

46. Who will you be with when 2013 ends?

Chris. Wade? Ashley-Renee?

Adventuretime

I’m back! Back from California, back to work, back to resisting the urge to vacuum every other day (or not resisting), back to watching true crime shows on Netflix, back to my blog.

Here’s a picture from my graduation:

My mother, Chris, me, Colin, and my brother Sean in Davis after the ceremony.
My mother, Chris, me, Colin, and my brother Sean in Davis after the ceremony.

On the morning of commencement, Chris and I woke up early and drove my mom’s BMW from San Jose to Davis. Just that drive – the two hours on 680 and 80 – were powerfully nostalgic, since when we lived in Sacramento, we spent at least every other weekend in San Jose. And I commuted from San Jose to Davis every day for two quarters, which means I did that drive…hundreds of times? Enough times for the sight of the mothball fleet in Suisun Bay to lose its charm, let’s say.

We met fellow Reedie Jack and his family in Davis for delicious Lebanese food, which kept us full for the next nine or ten hours. Jack was graduating with a PhD in political science, so plenty of gratuitous, “How’s your food, Dr. Reilly?”s and “Pass the pita, Dr. Long”s were exchanged, which our respective partners tolerated with good grace. Then off to Jack’s apartment to change into more respectable attire and assess our commencement regalia (“Don’t put your hood on yet, it’s bad luck!”). I asked two different people (only one of whom I had known longer than an hour) to check my navy dress for deodorant stains. It was comforting to visit Jack’s apartment, where I spent it’s-best-not-to-count-how-many evenings watching The West Wing with a glass of scotch balanced on my stomach.

That done, we folded Chris (6’2″) and Jack (6’4″) into my mom’s two-door and sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic for half an hour to go about a mile. Chris dropped us off at the commencement site, which was teeming with people. Without exception, the women had accessorized their commencement regalia with statement earrings and ambitious high heels. It was in the upper 80s, and brilliantly sunny; I was carrying my regalia and scurrying after Jack in four-inch wedge sandals. We had all been assigned a number, as if we were about to board a Southwest Airlines flight. The numbers corresponded to positions on a grassy field under a tent.

I beat Colin, my adviser, to our boarding position, but then ran off to the bathroom, which is where I was when he texted me: “Hi eira! R u here yet?” We found each other under the tent – Colin looking both young and impressive in his scarlet Harvard robes – and I made him hold my hat and hood while I finally swung my robe around my shoulders. We giggled a lot and nudged each other and talked about our books, and then marched into the stadium. My family had found seats on the very edge of the gallery, and were hanging over the railing shouting and snapping pictures.

The ceremony lasted three hours. Colin and I sat together – he had no other students to present – and talked about Stephen King and my book and the trip he and his partner are taking with his parents and how young the master’s degree students looked. We wondered what on Earth (get it?) you study to get a PhD in geography, and whose regalia is brown and bronze. Six or seven people asked Colin why his robes were red. Those red robes made it easy for my parents, my brother, and Chris to keep their eyes on us. I slipped off to the bathroom twice (Colin looking worried, like I might not be back in time), and didn’t trip over my sandals when it was my turn to cross the stage. (“In English, Britt Eira Long, presented by Professor Colin Milburn!”) The university took professional photos of us – Colin standing behind me, our left hips presented to the camera, like it was academic prom – but I much prefer the photos my dad took after the ceremony, when Colin gamely followed me out to meet my family.

As my parents and my brother set off for a steakhouse in Walnut Creek, Chris and I caught Jack and hugged him and jumped around and promised to see him in Portland in July. Then we drove out of Davis, me wriggling into a fresh dress in the passenger’s seat, washing my face and shaking out my hair. My parents and Sean beat us to the steakhouse by 15 minutes, and when we walked in, the hostess said, “Dr. Long?”

A day later, we drove to Monterey, where we spent two nights at a bed and breakfast in Pacific Grove and one at the Mission Ranch in Carmel. I walked along the beach every day (only getting sunburned once), read almost an entire book by Susan Orlean and another by John Sanford, took Chris to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Nepenthe in Big Sur and the Carmel Mission. We listened to the new Goo Goo Dolls album on the way down (no irony, no regrets) and brought a bottle of Champagne. We drank it on our last night, the night we ate at the Mission Ranch, and ordered a bottle of Barbera to go with our burgers. I was pleasantly hungover the next morning; I got up before Chris and walked down to the ocean and back before breakfast. Breakfast was Raisin Bran, a donut, and a lot of coffee and water, taken on the lawn in front of the tennis courts while the older of two Latino gardeners tried to teach the younger one to operate a riding lawn mower and made despairing faces at me behind his colleague’s back.

We drove back to San Jose via Highway 1, stopped in Santa Cruz for lunch (vegan macaroni and cheese at the Saturn Cafe), and flew back to Portland that night. There were balls of cat fur the size of small tigers drifting up and down the halls, so I walked to Laughing Planet for dinner and tried not to look too closely into the corners. The next morning, two cleaning pros turned up and vanquished the cat hair (not to mention the hard water stains in the showers and the smudges on the mirrors).

As soon as Colin gets back to the States, we’ll be discussing my book. I’ll get feedback from my other committee members then, too. Ideally, the book version of Choose Your Own Adventure will be published in 2014. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, there’s plenty to look forward to this summer: Finishing the transformation of our backyard (it started last weekend, when we removed several raspberry bushes, most of a fig tree, and a possible pet grave from the jumble of greenery that had made the patio and hot tub all but inaccessible); visits from friends and family; a birthday party; a wedding; and, if the hotels aren’t all booked for Labor Day, a night or two on the coast.

But now, I’m back to watching true crime on Netflix. Because nothing helps me wind down at night like serial murder.