Archive for the 'Old friends' Category

I’ve been away so long…

Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass…”

–Hal David

One of Angela’s childhood best friends lives in San Jose. Her name is Stephanie and she grew up in St. Louis two houses away from Angela’s. Stephanie came to visit us in Seattle shortly after her son Henry was born. At that time it was just she and Henry. Now she has a partner named Enid, and Enid and Stephanie have together adopted a little girl named Zoe, whom they call Zozo.

We hadn’t seen much of Stephanie since then, and none of us had ever met Enid or Zoe; we saw Stephanie in St. Louis years ago when Angela’s father died — she happened to be in the old city for Christmas visiting her family. She also popped in on Angela one day last year while she was in town and met Millie for the first time.

It’s been a tough year for us, death-in-the-family-wise; my sister, who was not old, died exactly one year ago, and since then, we’ve lost a cousin, two uncles, and an aunt, all of whom were not young. All of these passages have left us feeling…well…feeling how that feels. One of the things Angela and I have agreed on lately is that we want to make more of an effort to visit our farther-flung loved ones, because there isn’t really anything more important than your friends and family, and life is short even when it’s long, and you never know. I have been particularly remiss in this regard. In my youth I considered myself something of a traveler, but it was all for the sake of adventures in which I made the easy acquaintance of numerous interesting and worthy people, only to fail to stay in touch with them. I certainly have never been keen to get on airplanes just to visit people. I actually developed a fear of flying as an adult, when I learned that they only engineer aircraft to barely overcome the forces that would like to pull them to the ground, and that the reason for this is cost-savings and market competition. Each time a plane takes off and lands successfully, it’s just 10 cents surplus of being a miracle.

They go way back. Angela and Stephanie.

They go way back. Angela and Stephanie.

We decided to visit Stephanie and Enid and the kids. Stephanie’s mother Cheryl and step-father Brian would be visiting at the same time, and Stephanie’s family had been like a second family to Angela. Since it’s just two hours from Seattle, San Jose would be a good starter flight, not only for me but for the girls. San Jose is not normally a hot place, really, and at this time of year not even particularly warm, but the Bay area was having a really nice weekend for the first days of Spring during a year when California is experiencing record drought, while Seattle and the northwest have been experiencing such uncommonly heavy rains that an entire mountain along the Stillaguamish River, after twice the average monthly precipitation saturated its loose soil of glacial till,  fell down athwart the river last week and destroyed the small town of Oso in a matter of seconds (the dead so far number 30; rescuers are still searching for survivors, and a dozen people are still missing).

Our purpose was to just hang out. I didn’t know Enid at all, but I know Angela and I’ve seen her and Stephanie when they reunite, and I figured my weekend would be mostly entertaining all the children while the ladies yak-yak-yakked. I didn’t mind this, really, but I underestimated both my spouse and our hosts. When Stephanie asked Angela what we’d like to do while we were visiting, Angela said that she herself would be happy to sit around tall cups of tea and just catch up (see?), but noted that “Matthew gets dragged to St. Louis and hangs out and no one has ever even taken him to the Arch.” At hearing this, Stephanie and Enid hatched a plan with Stephanie’s mom whereby the kids would stay at the house with Grandma Cheryl (Brian would be flying in later that night) while the four of us would drive up to San Francisco and have dinner at…well, you just wait. They could not have chosen a more Matt-friendly outing.

Some of the best behaved travelers in the skies.

Some of the best behaved travelers in the skies. Mara draws, Millie makes things out of wiki stix.

Unfortunately, I was only half thinking of a blog post while we were away, so I only took a few photos, which include only one of Zoe and none of Henry. I’m only posting this because I wrote it, and I only wrote it because I felt like writing. Not great reasons for publication, and I apologize for that, but once again I fall back on the fact that my girls may someday value any jottings that describe family adventures. So here we go.

I’ve Got Lots of Friends

We got into San Jose midday after an easy flight that would have been absolutely trouble-free had I not accidentally left my Buck knife in the backpack I was using for my luggage, which is also the pack I hike with and is thus equipped at all times with the Ten Essentials and their many non-essential cousins. And actually, the flight was a dream; it was only my passage through Security that was unsmooth. They saw it “clear as day” on the monitor as the pack went through on the belt, but they couldn’t find it to save their lives and asked me to come over while they rifled my underwear — this was just to embarrass me apparently, because even though I knew which pocket it was likely to be in I was instructed that I was not to touch the pack while they were looking through it. After five minutes, they checked a pocket they had checked once before and — voila! — there it was. I was lucky. They let me mail it to myself at the small cost of $12 shipping and a trip backward through Security accompanied by two guards to the mailing station, a brilliant little airport amenity that exists solely as a mercy to people who are absentminded enough to attempt bringing cutlery on jet airliners.

Mara arrives at a used book store on the Alameda.

Mara arrives at a used book store on the Alameda. Click to embiggen.

It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and after meeting everyone and hanging out for a bit, I decided to go find a sorely needed cup of coffee. I had previously mapped out San Jose’s used bookshops — what? of course I did that — and it turned out that our hosts lived only four blocks away from one of the city’s best, Recycle Books, and there was a local indie coffeehouse hard by called Crema (there was also a Starbucks and a Peet’s, but I like to keep it small). So while Stephanie fired up the barbecue in preparation for dinner, Mara and I headed out, I afoot and she on a borrowed scooter. I didn’t have much time in the bookstore, but we got Mara Bone #9 (Crown of Horns) and even though Angela had brought some artisan chocolates as a hostess gift, I bought a copy of Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a book of short stories that occupies, in hardback first edition, an honored place on my bookshelf at home. I thought Stephanie or Enid, or both of them, would enjoy it. I almost bought, but did not, a nice hardback first of Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, not only because I had never heard of the book and so was undergoing that consumer uncertainty that sometimes strikes when you’re holding something that might be a treasure but might also not be, but also I was traveling and didn’t feel like hauling it (or having airport Security consider such writing a dangerous weapon or something unAmerican and therefore confiscable). The prices were reasonable, but it wasn’t a steal, so I passed. Probably a mistake.

The Rosicrucian Museum.

The Rosicrucian Museum the next day. Click to embiggen.

Stephanie and I and Mara and Zoe walked the dogs that evening, and in the dark we passed the Rosicrucian Museum, which, gosh, that startled me. I read about the Rosicrucians either in an Umberto Eco novel or else that ridiculous little book about The Davinci Code, and somehow I had either forgotten or not realized that the order was real. I read their sheet and frankly, I was pretty much in agreement with their outlook. It was all about practicing peace personally in order to achieve peace globally. I can think of less constructive credos.

If You’re Going

Stephanie and Enid’s house is beautiful. Full of art, bright colors, lots of light coming in the windows into rooms where people enjoy life. It’s a craftsman bungalow that was originally as small as bungalows originally were (in Seattle we talk of Craftsman bungalows but they are two and three story affairs and always were, so they aren’t really true bungalows).

Mara, Millie and Zoe in the kitchen.

Mara, Millie and Zoe in the kitchen.

We spent the morning there over a long breakfast of bagels and lox and cream cheese and fruit. I asked the kids if they wanted to go find a playground, since the sun was out again, but Millie and Zoe, who are only a year apart in age, were playing at something and not available for a long walk, so Mara and I hit the road again and ended up at San Jose’s famous five-and-a-half-acre Municipal Rose Garden, which has more than 1,300 plantings representing some 189 varieties.

The fountain in the Municipal Rose Garden.

The fountain in the Municipal Rose Garden.

It was early in the year so there were only a few in bloom, but we got the map and I went around to each of the ones marked as particularly fragrant and stuck my nose in each one that was in bloom. Just because that’s how I think life is to be lived. What else are we doing here? Some of the roses’ names were familiar to me from my days in the nursery business. Sunsprite, Givenchy, Double Delight, Secret, Just Joey.

Secret. It's one of the fragrant ones.

Secret. It’s one of the fragrant ones.

Henry, who is now 14, had a little league game at midday, and in fact pitched for the first time since he was very small. He was nervous about it, doesn’t like pitching, and while he walked a few more than he’d have liked, he also shut down the batter’s box when the bases were loaded by striking out the right players at the right moments. We were all proud of him.

Enid drove us up to San Francisco in the early afternoon. It took an hour or two to get there and we drove around a little along the Embarcadero before turning in toward the financial district and pulling up in front of the Tadich Grill, San Francisco’s (and they claim, California’s) oldest continuously running restaurant. This is a place I could write an entire post about. The Tadich Grill opened during the gold rush of 1849 as a coffee stand. It has changed names once, changed hands a number of times, and isn’t on the same street it used to be on, but it’s the dining establishment that San Franciscan’s consider their quintessential restaurant. It’s just one big room cloaked in a dark wood mantle; the side walls of vibrant yellow ochre are very high and innocent of decoration of any kind. They don’t take reservations, you just have to come and hope for the best.

They'd been waiting for us since 1849.

They’d been waiting for us since 1849. Click to embiggen.

Until a restaurant acquires a little prestige, at least local prestige, it can’t sensibly require reservations. To require reservations is to claim such popularity that more people want to dine at your eatery than it can accommodate. But the Tadich Grill is one of those places that achieves über-popularity and comes full circle, refusing to take reservations no matter who you are. “Your guests may very well have to stand in line waiting for a table,” says their website. “If they are famous, important, or influential people, they will still have to wait.”

Getting bibbed up for cioppino.

Getting bibbed up for cioppino. Click to embiggen.

We got there at about 4:00 in the afternoon, Enid handed the car keys to a valet, and we were seated immediately. The crowd arrived a short time later. The Tadich is most famous for its cioppino, and Stephanie and Angela both ordered that. We couldn’t all order the cioppino, so Enid and I both blazed some gustatory trail, she via the halibut and I by the Dungeoness crab al forno, a baked entree recommended by our waiter, an older gentleman with a vaguely European accent who was cheerful, dignified, slightly and appropriately condescending and just attentive enough. All the waiters were older white gentlemen, and probably all of them had vaguely European accents. I noticed that behind me on the wall was a thing like an old doorbell ringer, probably for getting the attention of the waiter. I really wanted to push this button but there wasn’t anything I needed.

I didn't push it.

I didn’t push it.

Enid grew up in Boston and is accustomed to aggressive drivers. Unfazed by big city traffic, she took us on a driving tour of the city as the sun set. It was the perfect long moment. We drove up California to the first crest of Nob Hill and turned right onto Mason Street and passed the Fairmont Hotel. The views of the bay were startling and wondrous as we descended into Chinatown, thence over to North Beach and Columbus Avenue, where I saw the famous City Lights bookshop and almost started barking like a dog to get at it. We circled around and headed along the shore toward the Golden Gate Bridge, but turned up Divisidero to reascend into the city’s lofty neighborhoods. I was surprised at how big this city was, I mean width-wise. I thought it was just a little hill up from the bay and over to the ocean side, but it’s several hills and several miles, and the miles and hills are absolutely covered with old buildings that have escaped the development that has ravaged urban cores in every other major city in America (I don’t know, I’m just saying that; I haven’t seen that many other American cities). Anyway, with Seattle as my reference point, San Francisco seemed alarmingly vast, and I had no idea that so much of it has been preserved from the years just after their big earthquake and fire in 1906.

I snapped this beauty from the car window, then later found it using aerial imagery, found out what streetcorner it occupies, and learned it was a famous house built by some confectioner named Westerfeld.

I snapped this beauty from the car window, then later found it using aerial imagery, discovered its cross street, and learned it was a famous house built by William Westerfeld, confectioner. Click to embiggen.

Enid gave us the very best tour you could hope to have by car as an introduction to San Francisco. From the top of the hill around Alamo Park, we looked over the top of the houses known as the Painted Ladies at the modern skyline beyond — this is a famous and oft photographed prospect. If there was one place I wish I’d hopped out and taken a photo, that was it. But I was content to just take it all in. From whatever neighborhood that was, we descended to Haight Ashbury, where the hippies still are, and then to Castro, the gay neighborhood, and then the Mission district, where we stopped for ice cream. In all of these neighborhoods there seemed to be restaurants on every block, none of them chains. Enid said San Francisco has a sort of anti-chain ethos. I never saw so many people eating out at restaurants in my life. Everyone in the city seemed to be on the sidewalk or sitting in a restaurant or cafe.

I Need the Water to Wash My Soul

Sunday we all went to the beach. We crossed the Santa Cruz mountains as the morning clouds were lifting and set up a picnic above the tideline. Stephanie and Enid had discovered an uncrowded beach near a small town called Aptos at the north end of Monterey Bay. We had packed swimming apparel for the trip from Seattle, but it was a cold, cloudy spring day in San Jose and we doubted anyone would be getting wet. Except Mara. I knew Mara would go in even if it was snowing. She wore her bathing suit under her clothes. There were seals up the beach in Santa Cruz, and where there be seals there be sharks. For this and other reasons (riptides, I affirmed later), I posted myself on the wet sand so that I could be in the water in a flash if Mara or anyone else got into trouble. We were there several hours and Mara spent the entire time splashing around in the surf and collecting heaps of kelp.

Mara in her favorite element. Nothing would keep her out of the water.

Mara in her favorite element. Nothing would keep her out of the water.

I built one of my elaborate sand castles with tunnels and towers and multilevel courtyards. The sun was shining but the wind was chilly. Still, when I dipped my toes in the water it was not very cold. When it was time to leave, I was overcome by an urge to jump into the Pacific. I could, I was wearing shorts. Henry had done it and had spent the hour afterward shivering. But it had been about ten years since the last time I had gone in over my head in the ocean, and I had no idea when the next opportunity would be. The others were packing up and heading to the cars. I dumped my phone, wallet, keys and glasses on the sand and removed my belt. Mara and I waded out and after advancing and retreating a few times, I dove in. It wasn’t that bad. I did it a second time just so no one could say the first time was an accident. Mara hopping chest deep reached for me and said “hold my hands, Dad, hold my hands!” I grabbed both her hands just as a wave came and she dropped down under. It was a good bonding moment that we were able to relive several times that day.

Seeing 'em is easy. It's hearing 'em and smelling 'em that's the hard part.

Seeing ‘em is easy. It’s hearing ‘em and smelling ‘em that’s the hard part. Click to embiggen.

On the way back we stopped at Santa Cruz and walked out onto the pier to look at the seals that had hauled out underneath it. They’re loud and they stink, just so you know. But hey, they’re livin’ the dream, just like we are. I bet they’d say it doesn’t get any better than this.

A hundred is better

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep”

– Robert Frost

There’s an old abandoned railroad grade called the Iron Horse Trail, the old railbed of the Milwaukee Road, that winds up to Snoqualmie Pass from North Bend along the northern flanks of Mount Washington, Change Peak, McClellan Butte and Silver Peak before running into what was in its day the longest tunnel on the Milwaukee Road system, then to emerge at the west end of Lake Keechelus at the top of the pass. This blog post is not really about that trail.

“A Taste of Old Monroe”.

Pictures of the Iron Horse Trail online now show repaired trestles that have no rails across them but instead smooth, walkable, bikeable, joggable paths, but when my friend Rich and I hiked along the railway there long ago, it was still physically a railroad, with rails and ties, and there was one trestle that we walked out on whose middle had collapsed many years before. We always saw it from the highway going up into the pass. It looked like a disaster waiting to happen, but it was the crumbling infrastructure of a world long gone.

The day we hiked along the rails we heard gunshots, someone shooting a rifle, but didn’t worry about it until we emerged from a wooded section of the railbed and saw a man standing next to a pickup that was parked next to the rails and looking sheepish. When he realized we were not authorities of any kind he told us he’d been target practicing along the tracks, hadn’t expected anyone to be walking up here, and was surprised when he saw my tee-shirt in the cross-hairs of his scope. My tee-shirt was blue and had a big rooster on it. Both the marksman and I were lucky that day, to say nothing of the rooster.

Trillium.

I had hoped my hiking buddy Scott and I might hike part of the Iron Horse Trail this past Saturday. But a sick man allegedly shot his wife and his daughter in their North Bend home the previous Sunday, then burned down the house by setting a can of gasoline in a skillet on a lit stove and headed for his bunker in the woods, where he had stockpiled food and ammunition for a last stand. Scott, who lives in North Bend, didn’t want to hike anywhere in the Snoqualmie Valley while the manhunt was going on. I agreed. The night before our hike, news reports were quoting forest experts who said that the man, a well-equipped survivalist, might be able to remain hidden in the mountains for months or years, which left us with the future prospect of hiking where we ran the risk of running into this desperado, or forsaking the Snoqualmie Valley completely and using up precious hike time on the highway to places further away.

As it turned out we needn’t have worried; the police work on this case was executed very swiftly. Images on the man’s computer, which survived the fire, practically put an X on the map for those in pursuit, and by the time I was driving to meet Scott the next morning I heard that special police teams were watching the man’s bunker, and before our day of hiking was done they would find him dead inside it, leaving us all to realize over and over again that even if they’d taken him alive there would have been no use asking what he was thinking.

Salmonberry. The lower woods were spangled with them.

Bridal Veil Falls.

Our wives had only given us shore leave until one o’clock, but we started early and drove up to Highway 2 to hike the Lake Serene trail, figuring if we didn’t have time to get all the way to the lake we could go as far as the Bridal Veil Falls Lookout.

We stopped for breakfast at the Hitching Post Cafe in Monroe, old Monroe, Main Street Monroe, which most people driving through Monroe don’t even know exists because it’s across the tracks from the main highway. I love Monroe’s Main Street because you can drive down the street and when you see a cafe you want to eat at advertising “A Taste of Old Monroe” you can just tug the steering wheel a little to the right and angle into a wide space, which is what we did.

I’m not sure if this is “stream violet” or “evergreen violet”, but it’s a violet okay.

“A few good years left in us.”

A day like this would not be complete, would not start well, without a good hungry man breakfast. I had the French Toast combo — I always do — and Scott got a similar arrangement with griddle cakes. The old men of the town were already there, having finished breakfast and now chatting over coffee. We sat in a booth painted with a little mural of a steam engine, “Pat McCoy’s 4-4-0″. There were other, larger murals covering all the surrounding walls, one depicting the street in the 1950s. Wood models of Conestoga wagons lined the shelves, and there were several old pistols, a guitar and a long logger’s crosscut saw hanging on the walls. The food was delicious and plentiful.

The trail was adorned with trilliums, yellow violets and salmonberry (I took pictures, naturally) and as far as the fork between the falls lookout and the lake it was fairly easy going, which fooled us into thinking we could make the lake in another hour. If this were an official report, I would note that there was a fair amount of downed material lying athwart the trail and that the trail was pretty much a streambed after the turn-off to the falls. Had the trail not been chiefly composed of crumbled granite rocks it would have been muddy going. And it was very steep. In many places there were wooden stairs that might as well have been submarine ladders.

The trail would have been muddy if it weren’t so rocky.

This is what the back of Mt. Index looks like.

During a water break near the top I called Angela on my cell phone. I don’t normally do this. I like to leave technology behind me when I’m in the woods. She had walked with the girls to a restaurant near the house and they were eating brunch, which made me glad. I knew that at a certain place on their walk home they’d be able to see Mt. Index, and I asked her to point and tell the girls that that’s where I was, and have them wave, which she did. She told them that even though I would not be able to see them waving I would feel it in my heart.

A snowfield lay over the last quarter mile of the trail, and Lake Serene was covered in snow and ice. We were way behind schedule now so we only stayed at the lake’s edge long enough to snap some photos, watch a few avalanches high up on the rock walls that rose from the lake’s far shore — the northern face of Index — and eat our lunches. Then we bolted back down the trail. The only wildlife I saw was a single chipmunk because the trail was so difficult, each step so full of potential for a twisted ankle, that I could never lift my eyes from the trail ahead of me.

A hazy stripe of sun lies across frozen Lake Serene.

Scott and I are attempting to plan and execute a hike — a no-kids, just-us-fellas hike — every other month this year, the even months minus December, so just five hikes. After we met a man on the trail who seemed in his seventies at least, Scott said to me cheerfully that we still had a few good hiking years in us. I got to thinking. That’s just twenty years for me now — Scott is a little younger. If we hadn’t committed to these five or six hikes every year (and we missed February because of bad colds and scheduling mishaps) then realistically I might only do one hike every year, if that. Twenty more hikes only? In the whole rest of my life? It reminded me of the lines by Paul Bowles in his novel The Sheltering Sky:

Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

Twenty hikes. The thought made me very sad and I said so.

Scott’s happy retort, “but a hundred is better!”, went ahead of us like the call of a trumpet, seemed to be picked up and amplified by the forest.

Scott and parties unrelated picking their way across the snowfield. By the time we headed down the footholds were getting slushy.

Faithful Scott. Yes. I’ll take a hundred, please. A hundred more hikes in these rolling fir hills that hatched me. And I’ll be grateful for them. I don’t like it that we get old. That death comes for us all. I hope someday to find a grace and a rhythm and a dignity in it, but right now it just bums me out, as it bums me out that a man can go round the twist without his neighbors knowing it, without them knowing that he’s spent six years building and stocking an underground munitions bunker in the woods, and that he will be willing to kill his family when he has decided the end of the world is at hand.

We have so far to go and it feels to me like there’s so little time.

Boxcars, hard chili and the long walk to forever

Angela made chili for dinner last night. Like everything she makes, it was delicious, but I noted to myself that the beans were a little al dente.  After dinner we were both moving around in the kitchen and Angela frowned slightly and said, “the chili was…”

She paused. Without thinking it over thoroughly I blurted out “hard”.

“Hard?” she asked. Her slight frown turned into an unslight frown. I saw instantly that that was not what she had been about to say.

I considered making use of that much-used-by-me piece of equipment, the backpedal. Then I just thought, what the hell. We’ve been married forever and we’re going to stay married forever. Might as well just run with it.

I gruffed up my voice to sound like Sam Elliot doing his “beef, it’s what’s for dinner” schtick and said as if to advertise it to cowboys, “Ang’s Hard Chili! Made with hard beans, the old-fashioned way.”

It struck her funny. She added “Hard to come by!” and “Hard to resist!”

“Hard to chew!” I tossed in.

So we put it all together and had a good laugh:

“Ang’s Hard Chili. Hard to come by. Hard to resist. Hard to chew. Made with hard beans, the old fashioned way! A hard chili for a hard ride.”

This reminds me of another food story, one that is responsible in a way for my being married. Before I knew Angela, I knew Kelley. I met Kelley contra dancing and because she was both a knucklehead and a good dancer, I took an instant liking to her. She too me. Turned out I lived just a couple blocks from where she and her husband Marc raised their smoke. Her husband didn’t dance but preferred to stay home and work on the addition he was building on their house, and because she wanted to share some of her new dancer friends with him, she started entreating me to come over on Thursday evenings and break bread with her and Marc, then she and I could drive to the Thursday-night dance together. Halve the gas use, double the fun. I have never been one to return a blank stare to someone offering me a free dinner, and I was a wolfishly hungry bachelor in those days. It became the Thursday routine.

One evening Kelley told me she’d invited another “dinner orphan” to join us, a woman named Angela who lived on the East Side and could never manage to fix herself anything to eat before setting out for the dance.

I frowned. I only knew one Angela, and while I thought she happened to be the most fetching woman in the folk-dancing community, and one of the best dancers, I had not had pleasant experiences with her. Or rather, my strong impression was that this Angela didn’t like dancing with me. The nature of contra dancing is such that if someone of the opposite sex is anywhere in the same contra line as you you will eventually swing them. I had swung Angela many times, and had managed to secure her as my partner a few times — she was always promised two or three dances out — and I knew that her swing was silky smooth. When she twirled, her yard-long black pony-tail, banded several times along its length, would swing out behind her, terminating the élan of other dancers within its radius. She was beautiful and light on her feet, but she always seemed to be eager to be out of my grasp. Angela hates it when I tell this, and usually interrupts about now to insist that when she first met me her mind made “an association” of my face with someone else’s whom she disliked.

I told Kelley I only knew one Angela and that dinner would certainly be interesting if it was she.

She it was. We sat on paint buckets for dinner because Marc was in the middle of blowing up the dining room, and Marc, as resourceful a man as you’d ever care to meet, had rigged us up a little table of some of the flotsam in the new addition. It was a bright evening and we had a good time, the four of us, in that bright new room. In person, and with food in my mouth, I found favor in Angela’s eyes. My wit and charm somehow came through with the aid of Kelley’s cooking and the ambiance of new beginning that Marc had created by remodeling their house.

The Thursday night dinner evolved into a full blown pre-dance feast, to which Kelley would invite some subset of the dancers she wanted to get to know better, a different guest-list every week. She experimented with seating known conservatives next to known liberals, shy persons next to windbags, just to see what would emerge. We would eat and make merry, and Marc would get to meet all Kelley’s friends, and then we’d all go off dancing. Angela and I were each grandfathered in and had standing invites to the table, and we came almost every week. The dinner became something of a legend for a while, and it was the aegis under which Angela and I embarked on a deep and enduring friendship, even as we each brought dates and significant others over the course of those years. Riffing on that Costner movie about the wolves, Kelley and Marc and I began referring to Angela as “Swings Her Hair and Many are Slain.”

Marc and Kelley, whom I bless forever, eventually took it on as a kind of project to get Angela and me together. It was obvious to them that we belonged together. It was not obvious to me until much later. It became obvious to Angela one night at Kelley’s table when I told the story of my grandparents and the biscuits and the boxcars. This was a story my mother had told me, and I told it one night to the full table when I happened to be seated at one end, we’ll say the foot, and Angela happened to be seated at the head. So it seemed to her as though I was telling the story down a long corridor of witnesses directly to her, witnesses to the rightness of what she was suddenly aware that she’d been feeling toward me for some time.

For me, it was just another gleeful moment among friends when my mouth was open and food was going in and some silliness was going out.

The story? Oh, it was just a little ditty. On the morning after my grandparents’ wedding day, my grandmother made biscuits for breakfast, hoping her culinary effort would please her new husband. But the biscuits were rock hard. This was during the Depression, and they didn’t have money to go anywhere, so they had risen and breakfasted in their own apartment, beside which there happened to run some train tracks. When my grandfather was unable to do any injury to the biscuits with his teeth, the two of them started laughing. Far from a marital catastrophe, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable memories of their lives, because they took the biscuits out onto their little balcony and threw them at a passing train. They sounded off the boxcars with a hollow metallic tong!

Angela sat at the other end of the table beaming at me. I still remember the look on her face, a softening, maybe a surrender, though at the time I’m sure I only imagined she was working on a burp. She has never been able to explain to me satisfactorily what it was about my telling that anecdote that sealed it for her, but it was something about how I valued the story and the image of my forebears in that small and beautiful moment, and my enjoyment of telling it. After that, she just never stopped being near me, like Catherine in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story The Long Walk to Forever, who keeps insisting to her old sweetheart that she has to prepare for her imminent wedding, but acquiesces to a walk with him even though she doesn’t exactly know why, and knowing somewhere in her heart that the walk will never end.

Well, I don’t expect you to fall in love with me just because I related this tale. It doesn’t surprise me that magic like that would only work once. But that’s fine with me, because once turned out to be enough.

Rolling with the ‘Boy Reporter’

When I was eight or nine or ten, before we moved to North Carolina, I met a boy named Cam when our family went over to his family’s house on Mercer Island for dinner. Our dads worked together at a property appraisal company in Seattle. I still remember that evening. There was a girl the same age as my older sister, and another girl the same age as my younger brother, and Cameron was my age.

They had cool board games and we played lots of them that night. They were a fun family. My sister and the older girl didn’t develop any subsequent friendship, nor — understandably though perhaps not necessarily — did my brother and the younger girl, but Cam and I hit it off and were tight from the start. It is one of the only preteen friendships I ever had that I can remember the start of. It was this evening on Mercer Island. A forced dinner that none of us kids wanted to go to. We probably arrived at their house bickering, slamming car doors, dad mashing out a cigarette in the ash tray and mom giving us the Look That Put Down Back-Seat Rebellions, but when we left that night it was with promises that Cam and I would soon be allowed to meet up again.

The entrance to Fletcher Bay was the perfect setting for teenage boys to discover Tintin. Click to enlarge. Image copyright Microsoft.

To make this part of the story shorter, I’ll just say I was invited to spend a week at their summer house on Bainbridge Island. Yes, this is the OTHER Bainbridge family I mentioned when I was telling you about my island adventures with Kip and his family (here). I didn’t know Kip yet, and the little beach house Cam’s family lived in all summer on the west side of the island facing Rich Passage was my first taste of island life. Cam and I played on the beach for hours, and if it rained we played Monopoly and Mille Bornes and Yahtzee and made our own single serving pizzas out of bread, cheese and tomato paste. In the mornings we made French toast. Cam visited and stayed at our house, too, and even though I didn’t have a beach outside my bedroom window, we found stuff to do, and when it rained, we played Monopoly and Mille Bornes and Yahtzee and made triple-decker PB&Js. I loved Cam. I prayed every single night for years, Dear God, please let Cam become a Christian. (Looking back, I doubt that this monumental effort of sustained supplication was necessary on Cam’s behalf.)

When my family moved to North Carolina, Cam wrote me and I wrote him. Details about additions to our train layouts, mostly. His family sold their house on Mercer Island and bought a permanent house on Bainbridge, at the mouth of a narrow inlet. When we moved back to Bellevue, to the same house we lived in before because it hadn’t sold by the time we decided to go back west, I was old enough to ride the bus into Seattle and catch the ferry alone. Cam and I still played board games, but now we also spent hours crafting model train buildings from scratch, sometimes models of actual ones we went and studied. We also spent lots of time on the bay. After World War II the Navy had sunk some surplus landing barges right out in front of Cam’s house, and during low tides we’d row out there. We designed and built glass-bottomed boxes that we could lower over the side and stick our heads into, and with the water thus flattened we could see the rusty gunwhales covered with sponges and starfish sticking up out of the sand. We fitted the boxes with flashlights for night use. We would row far up the inlet at ebb, then ship the oars and put our boxes over, he at one end and I at the other, and drift back down with the current, watching the crabs clamber among the seaweed strands and surprised flounders suddenly fluttering off leaving a trail of disturbed sand. Once during a wicked storm we saw someone’s dinghy heading out of the bay by itself, and Cam and I donned raingear and hauled our own dinghy down to the water and chased the runaway boat down in waves that nearly overturned us.

I didn't even realize at the time that there were English translations.

By the time we were about fourteen, we were loading up the dinghy with sleeping bags and other supplies and rowing the sixty yards or so out to their family’s little sailboat, which was moored not far from the sunken barges. Swirls of light trailed after our oarstrokes as we disturbed what Cam told me was “phosphorescence”. Cam taught me a million sciencey facts like that and introduced me to a lot of fun things. And one of the things Cam introduced me to — one of the items that went into the dinghy whenever we spent the night on the sailboat besides the snacks and flashlights and pop — were Tintin books.

Professor Cuthbert Calculus following his pendulum.

I had first encountered “the boy reporter Tintin” in Spanish class in seventh grade, when I saw a Spanish copy of The Adventures of Tintin: The Shooting Star among the magazines and other materials that were there for reading practice. Then one year, Cam had discovered them (in English!) and I got hooked, starting with The Secret of the Unicorn (not the first of the Tintin books but coincidentally the one that provides the story for a computer-animated Tintin movie being released right about now). We would take a few Tintins each out to the sailboat and read them by flashlight, snickering at the clumsy antics of the detectives Thomson and Thompson — such as when one of them stumbles going through a submarine hatch and gives a warning to the other, who carefully avoids tripping but bumps his head — or the mannerisms and English phrases we thought were so funny. Hergé, as you know, was Belgian, so his adventure comics were originally drawn and published in French, but their wild popularity since the appearance of the earliest ones in the 1930s* and 1940s demanded translation into many other languages.

My younger brother caught the Tintin bug from me and began, under my tutelage, to channel every character in the books — the humor was an uncanny match to his temperament. And hitting him just when it did it went deep into his young psyche. To this day if you listen carefully you’ll notice that Ben does not say three sentences in a row without inflecting his voice à la Tintin or Captain Haddock or Thomson (and/or Thompson) or our old favorite, Professor Cuthbert Calculus.

Cover of the German version of "Prisoners of the Sun". In Germany Tintin is called "Tim".

Ben collected almost the entire set of Tintin adventures in English. For some reason I did not own any in my teens (or maybe I did but Ben ended up with them), but I picked up a few German translations in Brussels long ago when I was a traveler — Der Blaue Lotus and Der Sonnentempel —  and they’ve been kicking around my bookshelves ever since. Mara discovered them a few weeks ago and has become spellbound by them. She is not reading much on her own yet; she can sound out words and write a few things, but the font and the length of the words in the Tintin books are a challenge for her. And, oh, they’re in German. But she sits and stares at the pictures for long periods of time, studying the physical humor and facial expressions and gleaning much of the emotional subtext of the stories this way.

I was secretly thrilled. Setting aside the fact that the Tintin books are nowadays universally acknowledged to be a bad teaching tool for children because of flagrant racial and cultural stereotypes — Africans look like Al Jolson, for one thing —  I am glad she is interested in the Tintin oeuvre. It provides a solid education in humor both subtle and slapstick. We can discuss the racial depictions with her, and we will. I’m less worried about that than I am about the violence that fills these cheery little books, the endless punching and gunfire. Mara has been pretty protected so far from images of weaponry and its use. We don’t have television reception, and we’re careful about what movies she watches. She’s lately gotten to be pals with several young boys, though, and playdates at Logan’s or Silas’ house are occasions of much zapping and whacking. She loves it all.

Tintin and Captain Haddock discover a stowaway! A page from "Red Rackham's Treasure". Click to enlarge.

Oh well, so did I. I loved my little green army men and my pistol-packin’, rifle-totin’ Johnny West. I watched Batman and The Rifleman on TV and was weened on the visually addicting violence of Warner Brothers cartoons.

I took Mara out a few nights ago to buy her her first very own English Tintin book, Red Rackham’s Treasure (forgetting that it is actually the sequel to The Secret of the Unicorn). I have an idea that if she stares at the pictures long enough and is curious enough about the text, she’ll start sounding the words out and the books will actually be an enticement to start reading more on her own. Especially since she has such an infallible memory for exact phrasing. I read the book to her once (taking care to explain the comic conventions, such as: sweat drops = alarm; whirly lines above someone’s head = dizzyness; curly lines behind someone = scurrying) and she is already repeating whole sections of dialog.

Off on another adventure! Tintin and Snowy head for the door again.

I’m eager to see the fun Mara has, and then someday Millie, discovering the books’ best delights, how Tintin’s forelock only stays wet for a frame or two after he hauls himself out of a river and his clothes are likewise instantly dry, and how successive frames often contain little running gags, like the piece of “sticking plaster” that adheres to various passengers throughout a plane trip to Djakarta in…oh shoot, hey Ben, which one was that?

I just realized how nutty it’s going to be around here when Uncle Ben visits and Mara picks up his Tintin vibe. Oh well, as Tintin says “there’s nothing for it!”

*The first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was actually published in 1929.

Some help I was

We laid to rest the father of my best friend Kip last Thursday. For me, this is the third such crossing over since the beginning of summer — older men I cherished in different ways. My own father went in early August, and shortly after that my church lost its elder statesmen, actually its elder elder. Now this man Ben, who met my appearance on his doorstep, my appetite at his dinner table, my hand on his refrigerator door as I helped myself to a beer, with the most unreserved welcome. I was Kip’s friend, and in his dad’s mind that might as well have made me a son. He called me “Choo”, was in fact present on some outing of his family’s when Kip first gave me that nickname, they all having turned to see me lagging behind them in some spazzy reverie and Kip having said, “Comin’, Choo?”

Unlike my own dad or Jeff’s dad, Ben was a cut-up, a jokester who lived for the double entendre and reveled in the timely pun. He laughed at everything he could laugh at and cooked a brilliant steak. I was not to knock at the front door of Ben’s house, even though the doors were perfect for knocking. There were large metal rings on both tall wooden halves. Kip’s family expected me to walk in. I usually knocked and then walked in, but I did not wait for them to open. They would have given me an earful for making them get up to answer the door when it was just me.

In the eternity of my memory of the house I knock, walk in, and must immediately wrestle the dog out of my crotch. Then Kip’s mom, who is sitting at her card table next to the fireplace putting the fun bits of a jigsaw puzzle together — the boats, the barn, the mill — glances up through the top of her bifocals and says, “Matthew, get your ass over here and put some of the sky in for me.” Ben is in the kitchen, preparing a meal of red meat and potatoes. “Hey Choo!” he yells upon stepping out from the kitchen to see who has arrived. The household is chaotic, noisy, unjudging, safe. Not all my friends’ houses felt that way. Some were quiet, nearly unpeopled galleries of distant lives. Kip’s family seemed to live in all the rooms at once and fill them all with witty expressions and laughter, sometimes complaint and yelling, too. Life was lived at full volume, and my own noise and witty banter were welcome. After paying the toll of a few pieces of puzzle sky successfully placed, my only other duty was to partake of some meat or drink. It sometimes took twenty minutes before I was free to ascend the narrow attic stair to Kip’s room so we could get down to the serious business of listening to records and playing cribbage.

The old craftsman house in Bellevue was the first of our houses — Kip’s parents’, Jeff’s, mine — to be knocked down and replaced with a sterile New Eastside mansion. After Kip and his siblings flew the nest, Ben and Betsy moved back across the lake to Seattle, whence they’d come. Ben died a few yards from site of the house he’d grown up in, though I believe that house is long gone, too.

Thursday came and I caught a bus from work over to the church in Bellevue, one that Kip and Jeff and I had passed countless times on our way from my house or Jeff’s to Kip’s, or from Kip’s house to my house or Jeff’s. I had only ever been inside it once before, back in the early ’90s, for the funeral of one of our high school friends who was gunned down on the streets of Seattle after intervening to stop a fistfight. I was looking forward to representing the small pack of Kip’s oldest friends who were, excepting myself, unable to attend the memorial service. My own family having just gone through this, I was eager to be a support.

But I had already forgotten how this goes. I was sad to hear of Ben’s passing, of course, and shared the real and immediate grief of my friend as it affected him and his family, but not having seen old Ben in almost a decade I could hardly say I would miss him terribly. For me he was pretty much a happy memory already. So I was expecting to sail through the event without much activity in the lacrimal glands. I would stand there like bedrock for the shaken family I loved, a smiling, composed symbol of Ben’s favor among all who knew him.

But as I say, I had forgotten how it goes. The family were still “in it”, as I and my family had been “in it” in August. They were holding up fine, still pushing themselves through the motions of “the next thing, and the next thing”, as one must do after the passing of a loved one. It all comes so quickly…the arrangements to be made, the people to notify, the attorneys and caterers to instruct, the paperwork to fill out, the photographs to assemble and the eulogies to write. The family had probably not yet had a moment to catch their breath.

I, on the other hand, was removed from all that, and as I settled into the pew of the beautiful old Episcopal church where Ben had brought his young family when they moved to Bellevue, I did not realize what an empty, raw vessel I was, recently scoured out and ready now to be hit with the full force of the loss of a father, even though I would be experiencing it obliquely, from a few feet away, a few pews back. The loveliness of humanity in its grieving process took me utterly by surprise. I had trooped through my own father’s funeral service, even spoken publicly, kept my composure and comforted those who could not, like my dear aunt who cried and cried, and considered it a success because everything got done and got done in the right order, and my father was honored and sung to rest in a way that gave those who knew and loved him closure.

But I had not had a chance to look fully into the abyss, to see ourselves all standing there at the edge singing a man’s favorite hymns, as though to comfort him and not us. I hadn’t yet been able to consider what it means when we gather after a death. It’s a shocking and wonderful thing, this thing we do. An unthinkable crack, horrible and permanent, opens up in our lives, and our loved one is on the other side of it, invisible to us, forever as long as we live. That chasm will never close in our lifetime, but we stand there together and sing into the hole, that inevitable gaping darkness, and we ask God to remember us remembering our flesh and bone. We stand there in our most vulnerable estate, dust living the windblown life of dust, and yet we lift our voices up in gratitude for having shared what now appear to have been just fleeting moments together. We read scripture aloud, words that sometimes confused us and sometimes caused us to argue with each other over their meaning, but that now form a shield between us and the unacceptable fact of death. We sing the raw edge off of our pain.

“Eternal father, strong to save”, we sang. It is a song I love and it was the first song in the liturgy we sang that day. Episcopal liturgy is foreign to me, but the hymns were some I knew and the organist was literally pulling out all the stops, weaving a tapestry of hallowed tones that carried our frail voices — clinging to each other in disarray — into sublime harmony. Mine failed me almost right away. I tried to sing but the breath went out of me as though sucked out by a nearby explosion, the way Christopher Plummer’s voice faltered as he sang ‘Edelweiss’ in The Sound of Music. All I could do was whisper the words. It happened on every song. The hall was filled mostly with elderly folks, including the only two people who shared my pew. I didn’t know any of them and I was grateful to be there by myself, all broken down as I suddenly was. I was grateful that the family was too far in front of me to see my lower lip wiggling, the water at the edges of my eyes.

It was a long moment that went through me like a spear. It was the moment that had been on its way to me since my father, unconscious in his living room three months earlier, surrounded by us his family, gently released his grip and stopped breathing and left us here in this bewildering and beautiful place, a place that suddenly seems more lonely and strange than any conception of death I can believe in.

The quiet thought trickled out of me, “he’s really never coming back.”

I felt it all then, the loneliness of all the people who remain — the whole of breathing humanity — for all their friends departed; the weight of the whole world’s longing.


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