Category Archives: the author’s life

Maths and Musics and Malodorous Masculinities and…Marmots?

This is the only image I have of me and my Hohner.

It’s officially the end of summer, and I’m in a tailspin. Over the summer, I gave up writing fiction, began a course in self-study on mathematics, and promised myself I would become an accordion player. This all sounds lovely, but it isn’t. Whatever I do, whatever fallback I have to keep me sane and complete as a human being, is done at the edges of a life filled with education, house-cleaning, cooking, errand-running, and essential kid events. Next week, I must rediscover how to maintain any sense of autonomy when I begin teaching all four of my children. In my home-school classroom, I will have one kindergartener, a third-grader, and two high school students present on my class roll. They are, admittedly, the best part of my life, but home-education is difficult (hey, even they would agree)!

I don’t know what has happened over the summer. I feel ingrown in the walls of the house–perhaps similar to the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper. Somehow, our family has managed to drop church-going, which, I’m sad to say, started with me. I needed to have three hours to myself one day a week and, although I wouldn’t call the small Lutheran church we attend a sociable church, it is a limited social event. When I say it isn’t sociable, I don’t mean the people are uncaring. I mean they are intellectual. For that, I really love the people at my church. I don’t love rising at the crack of dawn for a social experience, limited as it may be. I should add that my husband has his own reasons for not desiring to rise early for an eight o’clock service. By no means do I wish to sully his intentions with my personal issues.

And this brings me to the last subject in my titled list: Malodorous Masculinity. I don’t find masculinity to be, in general, malodorous. My husband is very masculine, and he smells great. And, besides, I love him. But I find the backlash movement of Masculine Christianity to be more than slightly annoying. Here’s the thing, men–I know this will be difficult for you to understand, but hear me out–you have been in charge of virtually everything in the world for thousands of years. The church gives no exception to your rule of male dominance. Now that we live in an egalitarian culture–egalitarian in name, anyway–suddenly men can’t stand the barest of feminine influence in churches. It’s as if they’ve woken up and discovered that God created women, too, and they’ve collectively shuddered at the implications. Women, no! Arghhh! Now we must be faced with pastel colors, emotions, puppy dogs, babies, and relationships! Gone are the days when we men, alone, braved the great outdoors with heartiness and bravado, intellect, and strength!

Yes, we women are people, too. We contain souls and spirits, if not minds. I’m terribly sorry that the male intellect has woken up to the threat of us slobbering, sobbing women, who slip around in pastel aprons muttering, “The poor, wee wee men. They needs our loveliest love and caring. Shall we put up some floral curtains for them? Aye, that we shall. We don’t understand a word of the heavy words written in those funny little books in the pew shelves. Titter, titter, titter, what could that mean? Won’t you big, strong men read the multisyllabic words for us? I’m afraid they’ll make us cry.”

While you men wake up to the astonishing truth of womankind, I needs to do my maths studies. I don’t know if my poor, wee brain will handle it, though. Meanwhile, I suggest you join league with John Piper and Mark Driscoll, who push for a more masculine Christianity. Mark Driscoll, at least, is a real man who apes up his image for the world to see. Click the link, I dare you: Is that a pastel purple vest Mark’s wearing?! I think I’ll write a song about it and play a polka dedicated to the color purple, when I can find the time at the edges of my calculations…

p.s. It was an accident. I had a tab open with a picture of a marmot, and I control C’d it by mistake. At first, it was so funny to discover a marmot for a man, that I laughed for fifteen minutes solid and decided to leave it up. But when I went looking for the picture of Mark Driscoll in his lavender shirt, I couldn’t find it, and am now wondering if my eyes were deceiving me. Perhaps the vest wasn’t lavender. On the other hand, he seems to like purple shirts: Not that I care. I just happened to have recently wasted an unparalleled portion of my precious time arguing about pastel colors over at Mike Duran’s blog.


Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The First Awakening

Do you remember your first hit of espresso? For me, this moment occurred in 1991, the year I graduated from high school. My memories of this time in my life are somewhat scattered and kaleidoscopic, and this is mainly due to the intensity of my ruminations throughout my senior year. I thought so deeply about the world I’m surprised my head didn’t explode. But that would have been terrible because, although I made light of myself as a disembodied mind in The News of the Day, I was the essence of disembodied mind at seventeen. I tended to imagine my head rolling along, dragging my body behind it.

In addition to my pretentious habit of reading the dictionary and smattering my stories and personal ditties with multisyllabic words, I also pretended to believe–to the point that I actually believed–I could hold conversations with animals, and most especially birds. At bus stops, I would lower myself to the sidewalk until I was eye to eye with the pigeons, and I would advise them to praise God with their voices because God would listen to them, no matter their smallness and somewhat lowly status in the city of Portland. Unfortunately, the pigeons never obeyed me, and so much for my career as an animal hypnotist. As for the multisyllabic words, they were the effort of a lazy gardener who dropped them in handfuls of seeds, such that they grew in alliterative clusters–meaning, if I was reading through the Cs, all the big words began with C.

My daily travel, that allowed for advising pigeons and reading the dictionary, as well as singing to myself and reading Great Literature, involved the 57 bus from Hillsboro to downtown Portland, where I switched to the Max train. I proceeded to ride the train all the way to 122nd Street, where I switched to the 71 bus, which carried me to Portland Christian High School. After school, I repeated the same tedious process, although my thirst for adventure often led me to take another bus [the other bus stop was all the way across the street!] to a different Max train station. Also, in my quest for independence, I often exited the train in downtown and failed to catch the first bus back, instead, opting to slip to Powell’s Books on Burnside. Other downtown stops included Pioneer Square–for people watching–and the library, which is an old, building with stairs that lead up and up and up!

But, this time, Powell’s Books is the crux of my awakening, and not because I discovered scandalous, spiritual, or enlightening literature deliciously awaiting me on the packed and dusty shelves. I didn’t devour books. Because of that, delicious doesn’t count as an adjective. I did read multiple books without buying them, though. I would crack their covers and read a new chapter or a new essay. I read through most of Annie Dillard’s books that way, but if you happen on Annie, tell her not to worry because I bought most of her books later, when I had money to spend.

As anti-climactic as this may sound, my awakening occurred in Anne Hughes Coffee Room. Did I ever tell you I had a brother? That’s odd, because I don’t. I have a red-haired sister. She’s beautiful and kind and wears a lot of freckles, but she’s no brother. Rather, she has that thing that redheaded girls possess, that near fatal allure to the opposite sex, and the lovelorn boy of the moment rented a room in my parents’ house. And he–no great surprise–treated me as his little sister.

Yes, he was my brother of the year. His name was Rue, and he was a young biologist who played the guitar, drew exacting symmetrical patterns, and counted spotted owls. He was a San Franciscan and brought his San Franciscan ways to Portland, including his propensity to drink expensive micro-brewed beers. Most important to my life, however, was his taste for gourmet coffee and espresso.

On a lark, one day, he attended my high school as a guest. He took the bus-train-bus with me, bringing his guitar in its battered case for good measure. In photography class, I took portraits of him in his pill box, Guatemalan fabric hat while he sat in a chair strumming his guitar. After school, from what I remember of my memory grab-bag, we hiked over to Powell’s on Burnside. The Powell’s trip may have landed on a different day, but for the sake of my reckoning, allow it to rest on this late spring afternoon.

We carried our respective magazines and newspapers and books we had no intention of buying into the cluttered backroom once known as Anne Hughes Coffee Room*. The coffee room contained a throwback, earthy atmosphere that in no way resembles a modern Starbucks. It was earthy in its essence of old wood counters and deep coffee smell, dust and newspaper fragrance, leather and wool-wearing customer odor. Rue offered to buy me a drink, so I casually said I would like an espresso, in the same way a novice drinker might sidle up to a whiskey bar and ask for a shot of Jack while attempting to maintain the aura of hardened-by-life expertise.

And so began my life of espresso drinking. I don’t know how to explain my instant love for the concentrated, bitter-rich coffee with golden crema on top. It simply happened. I drank a double shot, and suddenly my mind buzzed with an unknown silence. Even Rue was taken aback by my non-jittery state of being, so unusual for me. In that space of Powell’s, filled with the leather-shoed and wool-jacketed people crouched over their mugs and papers, my mind connected with my body, and the rapid movement of my thoughts stilled.

I sat upright, and I don’t know what ideas I conjured while I watched the windows turn black against the night. I knew that I knew nothing. I knew that my ideas were as blank as the windows. And I still know nothing, even as the New Mexico dusk fills the air, and the lights of the distant city stretch across the horizon. I’m far away from Portland. That’s what I know.

*I’ve bought many books at Powell’s over the years–just in case the bookstore police come after me. Also, I have no idea what Anne Hughes Coffee Room looks like these days, or if it still exists.


Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Pablo Loves

This post is dedicated to Pablo Loves, who is the shadow in the above image.***

Coffeehouses are places where friends meet—all friends, male and female, familial or not, a great diversity of people. Yesterday, I met a friend for coffee, a bittersweet confab because she’s moving away soon.* Several years ago, I met her significant other at the same coffeehouse, while perched on a tall stool. I don’t know how it happened, to be honest, but we spoke of Sor Juana, and the rest is history. Friends who discuss the life and poetry of Sor Juana—well, how can you lose that sort of friend?

In the early days of coffeehouses, male friends gathered to discuss politics, philosophy, and art. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire visited cafes, and great ideas fomented from the mind-sharpening brew and the wit of an intellectual crowd. In the United States, the first coffeehouse opened in Boston in the late 17th C. By that time, England had over 3,000 of these hotbeds of news and information. Friends and associates shared the latest in an environment not tainted by drunkenness or vice.

In Europe and the United States, early coffeehouses are associated with tenuous ideas of liberty. Tenuous. Yes, that’s the word I mean. When the freedom to access information and discuss it over coffee is a male privilege, then it’s a weak sort of freedom. When the male configuration of friendship is the only one allowed in the doors, then the women are left lonely at their tables back at home**.

But of course, all that has changed. And in my country, and in my Pacific Northwest, my Oregon, my sense of Portland, the history of the coffeehouse begins with the Italian immigrants and their espresso shops. From there springs the artistic cafes we’re more familiar with these days, where a mixed audience might catch the music of a local singer-songwriter on a Friday night.

And this brings me to Pablo Loves. There’s no sense I can use to perfectly capture Pablo Loves, except with the sixth sense of memory, an aspect of memoir I haven’t yet touched on. Pablo isn’t his real name [that would be anonymous]. Rather, Pablo was the pseudonym my anonymous friend picked at age fourteen, which should give the first clue about him. He—chameleon that he was—slipped from definition the way others clothed themselves with it. Or I should say that, as a chameleon, he was one color one minute, and another color the next. Pablo Loves—Pablo loves what? Pablo loves many things because his mind is a kaleidoscope.

When I was seventeen, he was fourteen. In those high school days, he played the guitar and played at poetry, too, as well as drawing. But his artistic outlets were just that—ways out of his mind, exits from anxiety and his fixed view of himself. Yes, these are all assumptions I’m making, but I believe them to be true. Behind the strumming, I have this feeling he made all manner of plans.

He never gave up the music, though, and has learned many instruments over the years, as well as modern mixing technology. Maybe music was part of the plan. I don’t know. Maybe later this week Pablo—my anonymous friend—will call me and demand to know why I’m making up his character as I go along. In answer, I’ll say, “That’s what writers do.” Writers do this, and they hope to stumble on the truth in their mix of assumptions and half-remembered stories. This is also why I’ve left his name from this memoir—because I don’t have permission to draft my idea of his character in public.

I understand a myriad of concepts, though, truths of friendship, information sharing, and the way these mix and mingle in the environment of the coffeehouse. To arrive at this mix, I need to back up a little [never has a memoir been harder to write than this one! Friendship is so difficult for me.] Pablo and I were good friends, despite the age discrepancy that causes more trouble at the respective ages of fourteen and seventeen than it does in older or younger persons. We weren’t necessarily comfortable with each other, and a scene in the forested area behind our school captures this: we stood awkwardly, under the branches of the fir trees, which dripped with rain. The afternoon was dark. Clouds hung deep and shadowy. And the tension was as heavy as the clouds because we both attempted deep communication, yet neither of us was capable of it. The world was too complex a place, too filled with paradoxes.

Later, soon after I married my husband, when Pablo would have been a senior in high school, my husband and I drove five hours to Portland to listen to Pablo strum on his guitar and sing his poems in the Pied Cow coffee shop. For those who know Portland, they’ll recognize the Victorian house turned café, and they’ll understand what I mean when I call this the apex of my friendship with Pablo Loves. The Pied Cow is—or was—a warm and friendly place. When I watched him, sore throat and all, bravely singing his heart for the world, my idea of him was fixed as a pure moment in time.

Pablo Loves has grown up so much since that night. We all have. Three years between us isn’t much to signify any longer. But I can’t shake the image from that night, how the world seemed a clearer, less complex place without its usual paradoxes. Pablo Loves and Pablo sings because Pablo’s a poet. I’d like to ask Pablo if he writes poetry these days—I know I don’t. I’m guessing he doesn’t, either. Instead, we share information. When he visits us in New Mexico from his home in San Francisco, we brew many pots of coffee and bombard each other with information. We’re the historical conclusions of the early ideas of liberty, the physical manifestations of enlightenment philosophy.

We’re the apex—the culmination of ideas and literature and coffeehouses. We’re friends. And I don’t know how to properly express my gratitude to him or to coffee or to history. Thank you, Pablo.

Pablo Loves Friendship.

*I began writing the difficult post last week and dropped it due to a terrible migraine. Since that time, the friends mentioned in paragraph one have moved.

**A number of women owned coffeehouses, but still, they were proprietors rather than purveyors of ideas. I created a neat little error in that last statement, and I think I’ll let it remain.

***I have been told that this isn’t Pablo’s shadow. It couldn’t be his because he would never frame his shadow in a shot. Plus, you know, those aren’t his ears. Oh, well. I thought the shadow idea was kind of clever.


Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Worlds Within Worlds

Just like unto a Nest of Boxes round,
Degree of sizes within each Boxe are found.
So in the World, may many Worlds more be,
Thinner and lesse, and lesse still by degree;
Although they are not subject to our Sense,
A World may be no bigger than two-pence.
Nature is curious, and such worke may make,
That our dull Sense can never finde, but scape.
For Creatures, small as Atomes, may be there,
If every Atome a World can make, then see,
What severall Worlds might in an Eare-ring bee.
For millions of these Atomes may bee in
The Head of one small, little, single Pin.
And if thus small, then Ladies well may weare
A World of Worlds, as Pendants in each Eare.

–Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623 – 15 December 1673)

As I write about the past, I think of the small, cellular worlds I must be creating somewhere. I’ve written about memory before, and I return to it because I can’t will these created worlds to burst their little bubbles or float away. They exist under a microscope of mind and words, and this is the place where I catalog my own Micrographia, as Robert Hooke did more than three-hundred years ago. Through his improved version of the Leeunwenhoek microscope, Hooke examined the unknown worlds teeming under the surface of human vision. He then carefully drew the details that sprang to life through light and lenses.

While Hooke’s microscope existed tangibly, as the image at left attests to, mine is locked up inside my skull, and my words are my only witnesses to what I’ve seen. But if I want to take a philosophical turn, I’ll have to admit that Hooke’s drawings are frail witnesses, worlds Hooke created as an artist with pencils. And nobody saw what Hooke saw, the worlds he experienced through his retinas and experienced as places in the mind.

Yes, that’s far too philosophical for short vignettes created by my early adulthood, of that short space of time I spent in nineties coffeehouses. If I were to live a second time, I would study the neuroscience of memory and probe deeply into the corpuscles of the frontal lobes. I would call myself a Mad Scientist with vision through walls, brought to me by brain imaging technology. My second life would have to take an abrupt turn at a crucial point, however, owing to the layers of memories and learning that have built up this idea of me as scientist rather than writer.

In those early nineties, I dropped out of college [this is the crucial point] because I feared my own incompetence and lack of intelligence. Hence, I applied to work at Coffee People because an espresso shop wouldn’t prove me incapable, even though it did on occasion. And writing was the outward shield I carried to thwart my critics. Although an academic failure, I could write and, furthermore, I didn’t need a degree to prove my writing abilities. Later, life would prove that I wasn’t a raw talent waiting to happen, and so I did eventually earn a creative writing degree, which served to reveal my lack of talent, after all.

Am I depressing you? Expressing negativity isn’t my intention in this piece, though admitting my fears is acutely discomforting to me, so I imagine how you must feel reading them. Instead, expressing perception is my intention. My memories, my successes, my failures, my life in toto are tainted by perceptions. And have these perceptions changed the reality of the worlds within worlds within my mind? And does a pure sense of existence survive after all is said and done?

I worked at two created spaces of Coffee People: the Beaverton store, and the one in downtown Portland at the end of the university park blocks. The downtown store has left the greater impression in my memory, perhaps because I worked there just before and after my wedding. Or perhaps the many ways in which my incompetency did reveal itself branded me for the future. For example, one delightfully early morning, I opened the store and forgot about the alarm and the alarm code until the beeping woke the downtown, sleeping city.

How far can I reach into these created spaces in my stored memories without altering them? In the kitchen of the shop, the bakers baked banana bread and brownies and cookies, and the smell intoxicated customers. It intoxicated me: true memory. In the front, we worked at one of two registers or espresso machines. The spare espresso machine was rarely used, though, and created its own little den-like space for a family of cockroaches–also a true memory. That’s panning in, focusing deeper, but it isn’t as far as the sight can reach. What if I extend my view upward?

Upward, I discover a space purely created in the imagination because I never witnessed those upstairs apartments that housed mentally ill patients. I imagined the next level as a series of dwellings lost in the bends of mouse mazes, where the mentally ill found themselves, unable to navigate their way out. But they did find their way past security occasionally. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known of their existence. When a mean, old lady with a jerking leg entered the cafe, her space met mine. The other employees avoided her, as well as the dirty old man who muttered to himself in another language [Russian, or am I inventing that?]. We were supposed to call the security upstairs if they caused trouble: Hello, you have an escapee who speaks strange words, and this time, I’m off the hook.

But I’m never off the hook. And, no, I refuse to make the obvious pun. What world have I created today? How did my thoughts inform my mind? Have I managed to create a coffeehouse, a rectangular space colored red and dotted with chrome and black? Despite my best efforts, my memories are escaping, now. They’re carrying me out the door of Coffee People and into the grass, under the giant elms that blow in the summer breeze. I’m newly married, and I’ve experienced love, but I’m sad, always very sad because I’ve stored my dreams in nonexistent worlds, lost in the storehouse of my mind.


Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: If Life Were a Musical

This post is dedicated to Sallie McCann Vandagrift.

I’m about to tell you a story, and you may not believe it, but I have witnesses to back me up. This is an account of a split in my being, the rent part of me that, at one time, was whole and continuously sang. By age eighteen, I carried a reputation for it: Hello, have you met Jill, the girl who sings?

I sang on Portland’s Tri-met buses and on the train. I sang as I crossed city streets and green spaces, and as I hid under the canopy of elms that populated the park blocks. But, mostly, I sang while making my way into the world of adulthood, across university campuses, while working for the physical plant, and as a means to expel anxiety. With my voice half-hidden, those who listened heard my stylized and carefully pitched vocals. And I did sing on key, though I can’t claim much more than that because my voice has always lacked strength.

At nineteen, when I took my first job as a barista, I still sang a round of my favorite songs: Dylan’s Love Minus Zero, No Limit and Mr. Tambourine Man, Simon and Garfunkle’s Homeward Bound, Melanie’s Brand New Key, Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz. At the peak of my non-career, my friends and I sang a rendition of Roger Miller’s King of the Road live on college radio.

And then something strange occurred. My voice dried up, and a great hush filled my soul. I stopped singing. I stopped pretending I had any musical talent [I didn’t, and don’t]. I stuffed any notion of living out the singer-songwriter dream. Every once in a while, that split in my being cracked further, and in the midst of a shift at the coffeehouse—while sweeping or carrying trays of café—I broke into a song and dance that usually began this way: If all of life were a musical. . .

If it were, then what? What would happen if life stopped, and the business world halted and swung into spins and leaped into heal-clicking renditions of the inevitable angst and joy brought to us by shift work? That was the idea I considered, what I pondered deeply when my Mary Janes could no longer walk straight and my hush couldn’t contain itself any longer.

What would happen? In the movies, songs and dances interrupt the story, and then regularity resumes without question, as if the protagonist hadn’t just sung her deep sadness for the world to hear, or the physical-plant workers hadn’t swung around in carefully orchestrated figures, their irrigation wands or rose clippers in hand—singing their life, dancing their job positions to a heartless universe that expands despite their display.

What is it worth? It’s equal to the finest wine and all the beer varieties you can think of. Because our human activities are futile in comparison to the broad spectrum of history, including the starlight that has traveled billions of years to reach us–because of that, even Solomon in his great wisdom would equate a real-time musical with love-food-alcohol after or during the tediousness of work.

What is it worth? It’s worth as much as any human survival method. But what if I were to ratchet up the meaning, raise the stakes? For a while, I sang in a praise team at church. This provided me an acceptable end to the hush, a means of breaking the silence that rent me deeper and deeper as the years of marriage, children, and work stole over me. Singing in a praise team, in a sense, raised the stakes because the pastor/members set an expectation of deliverance and evangelizing. Those stakes–the ones involving an assumed audience–aren’t the ones I mean.

I don’t mind singing in church. I don’t, but lately I’ve wondered about the purpose of the church experience–the effect of being the audience or having one. I haven’t, to be honest, attended church in weeks, and the last time I did, it wasn’t to sing in a praise team. These days, the church I attend sings hymns to a pipe organ whose sounds weigh heavily on my soul.

Music is a survival method, and for a long time, listening to accordion players has filled the survival well with much needed water. But now I desire more than survival. This is where my life is currently—on the edge. I’m at the edge of survival, on the border of breaking free from ego fixations that press me down and hold me in silence.

Solomon might have given equal weight to the various methods of extracting comfort from pain, but in the end, the only purpose he found for existence was service to God. That was it—the end, the final conclusion. So when I ask, what is it worth?, I mean, what could it be worth if I broke away and served God by any means possible?

I have an accordion. What would it be worth to repair the rip inside myself and sing again? Essentially, I’m not seeking musical greatness. I don’t care about that. But I might like to hear these words: Hello, have you met Jill, the woman who sings because her soul needs to serve God?

I want to enter into mature adulthood, sans anxiety, expectation, and ego fixation. I want to come to the end of myself, where the only answer left is to remember my creator. As of now, this story has no end, but it now has a multitude of witnesses. Hear me now: If all of life were a musical, then all the living would have a choice. Sing and dance for God, or as a passing glimpse of hope in otherwise darkness.