I walked to work

Sunday morning we woke up to snow. It had rained quite hard the night before, and a cold front came in during the night. If there had been snow in the forecast, I missed that news. Anyway, it was not the usual snow of a New York winter, but the heavy, wet, out of season stuff. 

What I saw: I was walking to work in the winter of 2008. We lived in Seattle then. I had a paying job and neighbors I knew. A different life. 


What I did beforehand: got up, got dressed, got the dogs squared away, got my kids up, did some get-ready-for-school yelling, made my lunch, complained that it wasn’t a snow day, decided whether the walk to school in the slushy snow was going to ruin my boots. The snow hadn’t stuck to the pavement.


What I wore: tights and boots and a wool skirt. The school had a strict dress code for students. I would have just as soon worn jeans every day, but jeans were only allowed on Fridays, except when there was mass. Mass days were dress-up days. I had a heavy bag full of grading and a sack lunch.


Who went with me: I walked alone to school—alone with my resentment about the disconnect between my salary and the preparation and challenge of the job. 


How I got hit in the face with a snowball: I saw him before he threw it. He was standing on his porch, getting his New York Times. 

Why I got hit in the face with a snowball: it doesn’t snow in Seattle very often, and I must have presented an irresistible target.

Things that were sad: it hurt.

Things that were funny (with apologies to Mel Brooks): snowballs that connect with other people are comedy. Snowballs that hit me in the face are tragedy.

Things that were not funny: I had no witty comeback, no arm to retaliate, and no time to do anything except keep walking to my job.


Something I ate: sweetened iced-tea, a non-fat peach yogurt, a banana and a granola bar that I brought from home, but what I really wanted was a ham sandwich with a lot of mustard on Jewish rye bread, chips, a pickle, and a Coke. Every day when I ate my lunch, lunch-eating-me resented the hell out of lunch-making-me.


What it is: a harmless prank, committed without forethought, calls for a commensurate reply. Before we moved I used to think about bringing this neighbor a supply of snow from the mountains, which is something you can do in the spring in Seattle, where the mountains are a little over an hour away. Another idea I had involved planting something unexpected in his garden. I never did anything. 

Who should see it: they do say revenge is best served cold, but this one will have to go up to the universe as another un-righted wrong. 

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I sent change of address cards, and if you didn’t get one, it’s probably because I don’t have your address. It’s all email or text now, anyway. You know, back when my kids were little, I’d sacrifice the daylight of a whole day to stage a seemingly spontaneous holiday picture. I’d dress them in matching flannel shirts and try to gather them into a group, waiting for that perfect combination of kid-ness and cute-ness, in the presence of decent lighting. It wasn’t easy when the days were as short as they were in Seattle in early December. And I had film in my camera, so it was not possible to know right away whether I’d gotten a usable shot or not. Back then, I sent holiday cards to a long list, over 100, including my friends, relatives, neighbors, and friends of my parents. The list of change of address cards I sent out this November was less than 40 names.
A friend whose kids are in their 20s still gets them to sit for an Xmas photo every year. Every year for the past four years I’ve been like, no way will she get them to do it this year, and then, blammo, she does. And their smiles last year were slightly less ironic than the year before. My kids aren’t all on the same coast, so I have no hope of being able to make it happen this year; I’m not sure when was the last time I got a picture of them all together. I think instead of feeling sad about that, I will put Xmas bows on my pets and pose them in front of the tree for a photo. They will enjoy it. It might be old dog Cherry’s last Xmas anyway.
In response to our change of address cards, I got an actual, handwritten letter in the mail from one friend, and an email from the son of an old neighbor in Seattle. The old neighbor’s son was sad to report that our neighbor died in August. I have written about this neighbor before, because she was the one who so keenly reminded me what a bad neighbor I was sometimes. She was 88, and had a massive stroke.
Here in Bedhead Hills, the dogs are still learning the boundaries of our mostly wooded property. I’ve only let them out the door unleashed a few times; Captain got skunked in October, and a few nights ago he came back to the wrong door, so I was calling out into the dusk and he was barking to be let in, but we were doing it in different doorways. So, I leash them up and go out with them, and when time permits, I try, after walking them on leashes, to take them around so they can practice seeing where our boundaries are.
Yesterday, after a long walk, we took the little path into the woods on our property. We got tangled in the thorny bushes, and I unclipped their leashes. My timing was perfectly wrong. Though our yard is below a steep embankment on that side, the dogs saw a woman and her dog walking by, and charged up the hill, bursting out of the bushes and ambushing the pair on the road. The woman screamed with surprise and snatched up her little white dog; it was barking furiously. I shouted and shouted at my dogs; Captain came back cowering. Cherry, who doesn’t hear anymore, didn’t bother coming back down the embankment at all. She trotted around down the driveway and headed towards the house. So much for introducing myself to the neighbors. I don’t suppose she heard me screaming, “SORRY!” at the top of my lungs.
Captain has never been very good at anything but the most basic obedience, and with Cherry no longer offering him the model of nearly perfect sits, stays, and comes, I’m going to have to go back to daily drills with him. I don’t know how we’ll conquer his desire to chase deer or greet people who walk by with dogs, without having to risk him running into the road. He is fun to work with, though, because of his sweet and cheerful outlook, and he doesn’t get bored as long as treats are involved.

They have their own agendas

Early last January, when we still lived on a big farm, far from the busy road, I let the two dogs out to go potty on a snowy day and Captain did not come back. Because I envisioned the skunk he was tracking or the herd of deer he was chasing, a half an hour passed before I got worried. Was he lost? Had he chased the deer too far to find his way back? Ten more minutes passed. Had someone taken him? My imagination ran away with scenarios: he is a hunting dog, so maybe he’d been stolen. Or what if he’d been dog-napped? I concocted a tale of how it was the revenge of my Twitter troll, trying to threaten and intimidate us. Could she have figured out where I lived? The longer he was gone, the more outlandish my ideas became about what had happened to my dog.
I got in the car and drove slowly down our long, frozen driveway, calling out the window into the cold. I drove to a neighboring farm where our housesitter said the dog had gone once to play with one of the dogs who lives there. As my tires crunched in my steady ascent of the long, straight driveway with snow banked high on both sides, four separate texts arrived on my phone at once:
“He’s back.”
“He’s back.”
“He’s back.”
“Where are you?”
The narrowness of the drive meant I had to go all the way to the top to turn around, or back out the way I came. I backed out the whole way.

Black Jacket, Yellow Jacket

This summer, when we weren’t looking, a huge, paper nest blossomed and fruited and swelled, large and ripe in the doorframe of the house we’ve been renting. I may have noticed it when it was the size of a plum, but the next time I looked, it was the size of a cantaloupe, and abuzz with life. It’s now bigger than a watermelon. The residents are fat and black with creamy white tiled faces and three matching stripes on their abdomens. I idly recognized them as “paper wasps,” because of their oblong, gray and brown striped paper nest. After a couple of weeks I realized the denizens were fatter than the wasps I’d thought were “paper wasps,” so I did a little investigating. There are perhaps 1,100 kinds of “paper wasps.” Our guests are bald-faced hornets, and actually in the same family as yellowjackets. Some folks call them blackjackets.
Depending on the site, Internet searches will either reveal these busy and meticulous nest-builders as aggressive or defensive. Some exterminators say you can’t safely get within three feet.  Others say they’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone. On sunny days, I like to stand a few feet away and watch them fan the entrance.  One or two guards will whizz past my ears when they’ve had enough of me. I can watch as long as I like from the safety of the inside of the garage and get very close. Inside the great gray-brown striped football are many layers of corridors just big enough for the wasps. I have read that they’ll be all gone after the first frost, in mid-October. Only the new queens will survive, overwintering in the bark of nearby trees.
I am practicing being calm and tolerant of them. From what I’ve seen, the advice that only a professional should remove one of these nests is quite sound; because this nest is against the glass of a window, I’ve peered into the chambers. There are many hornets inside, and they are not asleep at night.
The paper nest of  bald-faced hornets

The sky bright and the afternoon just beginning to wane, we pulled our minivan into the long, single-file line of parked cars to wait for the ferry to Anacortes. There was once a snack bar here, a shack of weathered wood with a small deck in the shelter of a grove of towering douglas firs. The kids had piled into a bench on the far side of the table. The youngest was first in. He was 3 or 4 years old.
Those late summer yellowjackets in the Pacific Northwest sting without provocation. They dive into a can of soda. They eat unattended hamburgers. They land on your arm and sting you while you’re standing at a party and not swatting them. They are a known menace.
As we discussed who was getting rootbeer and who was getting 7Up and how many fries we ordered and whether we’d get ketchup, a yellowjacket landed and lingered on my youngest child’s cheek and was crawling towards his eye. He, like all of my kids, was very afraid of being stung.
In my calmest voice, I said, “Hey, dude, there’s a yellowjacket on your face, so close your eyes and hold very still.”
He closed his eyes and did not move. I promised him, with the certainty and truth of adult logic and the power of all mothers, everywhere, and every mother that ever lived, that if he held very still the terrible stinging yellowjacket wasp would fly away on its own. It crawled all over his sticky little face, its abdomen pulsing as it explored the pale tender flesh and even ventured up and tickled his eyelashes.
My other kids were aghast. They were witnessing their worst nightmare, unfolding slowly next to them. They wanted to scream. They wanted to climb across the table away from their lost brother. It was more than they could bear to witness. One had to pile both hands over his mouth to keep from shrieking.
Even my husband wanted to do something– blow on it or swat it. I calmly and silently insisted that it would leave on its own. My husband and I disagreed so strongly on this point that we exchanged ten thousand angry words and ideas, rapidly, fluidly, and without a single sound.
The previous summer I was stung four or five times by one yellowjacket on Lopez Island; it had flown up my pant leg while I was weeding and it had gotten trapped. I ran to the house, tearing my overalls off as I went. I had swatted my leg without looking, and it was the swatting that provoked the stings.
But then, on the deck of the ferry station snack bar, all of our faces agrimace in the various rictus of frozen panic, while the youngest persisted, quiet, relaxed, calm and serene as the terrible yellowjacket prolonged the threat of a painful sting. And as suddenly as the wicked little thing had appeared, the nasty, venom-filled, late-season yellowjacket finally paused in its pulsing and crawling and tasting of the face of my child, whirred its transparent lacy wings and lifted itself into the air. It flew away. No sting. We cheered.

Last Monday

At lunch in the city I saw someone across the room who was a pretty good friend of mine in college. I was trapped on the wrong side of a large table, so getting up and saying hello would have been a huge distraction: drawing a lot of attention to me and isolating my kid (who was sitting next to me). I had nearly summoned the energy to do it anyway, when she was joined by a male friend that I did not recognize, and I gave up.  While I ate, she glanced over at me at least once, but either she did not see me or she did not want to see me. It is also possible that she saw me but did not remember me, even though my kid looks like a 14-year-old version of his father, who she also knew.
It is not a wholly new situation; we have all been in it before. You wait for the chatty neighbor to get in his car and drive away so you won’t have to say hello. You ignore the fact that Leon Redbone is struggling to be re-booked at a USAirwayscounter because you know that celebrities deserve to suffer the humiliations of airline travel undisturbed. You pretend you don’t see your grandpa in Steak ‘n Shake because you go there to smoke and it’s your super-secret hideout.
Meanwhile, my husband, sometimes known as the Bacon Provider, got an email at work that day. Now he is a bit of a Medium Cheese in the world, having been on the creation end of a number of gadgety electrical things like the Xbox and tablets, and recently enjoyed a bit of extra media attention owing to his quitting work.
Well, the Medium Cheese got one of those creepy do-you-remember-me-?emails on his work account. Apparently, a woman who went to elementary school with him one year remembered his name and wondered, something like 35 years later, whatever happened to that guy?  The Medium Cheese’s family moved frequently when he was a kid, and his quiet, studious nature had left an impression. “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I’ve never forgotten you…. I often wondered how you turned out. Imagine my surprise at when I Googled you. I’m so relieved you didn’t turn into a serial killer.”  
Apparently there just aren’t that many serial killers around anymore. When they are revealed, there is the usual set of interviews with the neighbors, who always say the vicious murderer was “kind of quiet.” Who doesn’t fit this description? David Lee Roth? 
The Medium Cheese is mostly unperturbed by the creepy email, and I think it bothers me more. This is a guy who will not kill spiders and who once stopped his Mercedes on the 520 bridge to rescue a baby duck.  But then again,  they say Hitler was an animal lover

Good Neighbors

I got back from Canada earlier than expected yesterday, and having seen that the sky was ominously gray thought it a good moment to pull out the lawn mower and induce some real rain. The mowing was extra slow going. First, our neighbor to the south stopped by, full of congratulations and advice about the move. It turns out he didn’t know what, if anything, Otto did for a living. Somehow the fact that he worked, and he worked at Microsoft, had never come up in our conversations. It makes me profoundly happy to tell this, because these are our favorite neighbors, and I have always appreciated knowing people who care more for who we are than what work we do.  This neighbor admitted to Googling Otto on his phone and being very distracted with the results.

Next, my neighbor from two doors to the north passed by, with a letter for the mailbox in his hand. He had seen and read the actual article about Otto in print in the newspaper on Wednesday of last week.  We exchanged news of who is graduating this spring, and how many  graduation ceremonies we will be attending. This neighbor is a retired college English professor; many teachers of all levels spend one day each June sitting in a nylon robe and a silly hat for several hours, listening to the drone of Elgar’s graduation march “Pomp and Circumstance.”

We agreed that graduation ceremonies for elementary school children are strange and unnecessary, and that high school graduation is more of an expectation than an achievement.  Reader, no matter how wonderful your children are, their graduation ceremonies are boring.

My third neighbor to visit came from the house to our immediate north. She had learned our news chatting with her older son on the phone. While her son read it in the paper, our neighbor told me she looked Otto up on Google.  We ended up having a good long chat out on the front lawn. By the time I actually was able to squeeze the handle of my electric lawnmower, I was enthusiastic about cutting the grass.
You might find it interesting to know that the last division of Microsoft Otto worked in was Bing.

Bad Neighbors

I am a bad neighbor. Before we left for Hawaii I realized should have cut the grass.  Seattle has two seasons: Wet and Dry. The Season Dry in Seattle is three months long, and if you time it properly you can get away with mowing your grass only once a month or so. By mid-September it will be thoroughly yellow and dormant.   October will be punctuated by the raking of wet leaves which will continue until mid-November. Until mid-March you should be able to get away without cutting your grass, but once April is in full swing, there will be a new crop of dandelions and moss to deal with.
We got back Wednesday, and Thursday I cut the grass in the rain. My husband asked me why I did not check the weather forecast before starting, but he does not cut the grass and so does not understand that waiting for a nice day means waiting until July. He helps with yard work if he comes home while I am still doing it and I have not yet finished. He is much better at yard work than I am, having infinitely more patience for proper sweeping and thorough raking.  He also does not succumb to fits of giving up like I do.
People walk around in this neighborhood, and sometimes I have to talk to people while I am doing yard work. Usually, I pretend that I cannot hear them saying hello.  Sometimes they can tell I can hear them. Also, sometimes people will say things like, “Nice job,” which I believe I am supposed to be gracious about.  If I cannot muster a real “Thank you,” I give them the bright-eyed, pissed-off grin for which both my older brother and I are famous.  Once, a yard crew made the mistake of telling me that they’re hiring.
Thursday, I found that while we were gone, the neighbors’ dogs have been pooing in our front yard. Evidence includes small assaults from the white dog to the north and epic bombings from the enormous St. Galumphin three doors to the south. In both cases, the dogs are walked by teenagers who carry neither a bag nor a leash. The white dog to the north belongs to a family with a single dad  so I cut him plenty of slack. The St. Galumphin is the first dog the neighbors to the south have ever owned, and somehow they still do not know that when you have a 700 pound dog, it makes poos of a note-worthy size. Or maybe they do know.
When I was a kid, we lived in a suburban sub-division with a triangular traffic island directly across from our house.  People used to let their dogs poo there, and my dad and brother liked to play catch from the island to our yard. I once heard my father tell a neighbor that if he let his dog poo there again he would “come and shit in your yard.”  I think he would have done it, too.
I can take a bit of dried poo, I guess, in comparison to the much more horrifying situation with our immediate neighbor to the north. While we have lived in our house since 1994, she has lived in hers since the early 1970s. A widow who lives alone, this neighbor is someone I actively avoid running into outside. A good neighbor would know her comings and goings, and check on her from time to time, rather than wondering silently why her house was dark for a few months this winter.
Our houses, built starting in 1909, are about 12 feet apart, and three stories high. This is typical of Capitol Hill. Homeowners get to choose between being able to see into each others’ homes year-round, keeping their curtains closed, or planting something tall and skinny that can grow with virtually no sunlight.  It turns out that a Washington native species, the vine maple, is perfectly suited to this job. Multi-trunked and skinny, these understory forest dwellers do just fine in the narrow, dark alleys formed by tall, closely-set houses. We have four on one side of the house and four on the other.
My neighbor believes that these trees are an invasive species.
Every time I see her, her voice rises higher and higher as she explains that the roots are taking over and killing all her grass, that the trees are not trees at all, they are vines, sending runners. They are bringing insects into her home, leaves into her gutters, and she really needs me to remove them.
I have tried to explain that they are trees, not vines, and that we like them, and that we will happily cut back any limbs that are too close to her house. I am willing to help pay for the leaves to be cleaned out of her gutters. Once a year I have a tree guy who trims our monstrous laurel hedge and removes any offending vine maple limbs, and every year he, too, has to have this same the same conversation with her.
The neighbor’s adult son supervises the care of her yard. He has two young boys, who were taught to push the gas-powered lawn mower just as soon as they were tall enough to reach the handle. I cannot bear to watch, only able to block out the vision of the bleeding, footless child from my brain by pretending I do not know what is going on. The neighbor’s son also regularly prunes her enormous and beautiful hydrangeas to a mere cluster of sticks, and they manage to rally every August. Once a year, he will treat her lawn with a moss-killing compound, which turns her yard a startling shade of black for a number of weeks. While we were in Hawaii, the new spring crop of broadleaf weeds (like dandelions) emerged. I have a cool tool that you use to pull them out without bending over. The neighbor’s son seems to have sprayed their weeds with weed killer, for they have turned a strange purplish gray.
If you walk three houses down, slightly down hill to the end of the block, there is a storm drain. You can see the faint outline of a salmon painted on the pavement, with the words “Dump no Waste Drains to Lake.” All the moss-killer and Round-Up washes here, where it travels through the ravine near my house, and does indeed end up in Portage Bay. I guess some of it also sticks to the paws of the dogs to the north and south of us who poop regularly in her yard. I do not ever let my dogs out in front of the house anymore, but that is another story.

A Pluto Story: the Catholic Vizsla

Capitol Hill is a big neighborhood in Seattle, but our corner of it is dominated by largish square houses set closely together and built just after the turn of the last century.  For many years, large Catholic families have lived in this area, attending both St. Joseph’s Church and K-8 school. When we first moved to Capitol Hill, Pluto was young and had no experience with paved streets or sidewalks. He was also hard to control and rather enthusiastic. One Sunday morning he bolted the front door when I was gathering the Sunday newspapers from the front porch.
I was wearing a flannel nightgown and no shoes. I gave chase for perhaps half a block before turning back. I ran back into the house for car keys, got in the car and headed out to find him.
He was only two blocks away, in the middle of the intersection of 19th Avenue East and East Aloha, an intersection controlled by a flashing red light. It was early enough that traffic was pretty light, plus it was Sunday. Pluto had his mouth agape, excitedly barking at the cars as they drove around him. I pulled over nearby, opened the passenger door.  I called his name, and he bounded over and hopped in. I pulled his door shut and drove him home.
The next day, I ran into my neighbor Pat from across the street. “You know,” he said, “Pluto came to mass yesterday.”
“Oh, really?” I asked, disbelieving.  A funny idea, but I caught him pretty quickly.
Pat continued. “He trotted down the main aisle of St. Jo’s, greeting everyone, panting with his huge tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. He had to be escorted out.”
This detail, the huge tongue, led me to think that Pat was not making up the story. Pluto panted wildly when he was excited, and he had a tongue much larger than what you’d expect to see in a vizsla’s mouth. “Well,” I told Pat, “He’s a Hungarian dog. Maybe he’s Catholic.”