A Failed Housewife

Posted Posted in At Home

“Do you like to cook?” he asked.

“Well, I don’t really love to cook though I enjoy taking care of people. I only like to cook things that use one pot,” I said. “To make as little mess as possible.”

“Oh, so you’re lazy!” he proclaimed over the phone. It was the first time I had talked to this man. Ever.

“Um, no …” I began. “Not lazy … just as efficient as possible with my time.”

“Ah, you value your time,” he said. “Like me.”

This was one of the many exhaustions of dating people you’ve never met in person. The time spent sifting through myriad false assumptions. I was irked by his first assessment, even after his second. But here it is a few hours later and I wonder if he was right. Maybe I am lazy. There are unwashed dishes in my kitchen sink. And not from today. I have stacks of unread mail and bills on my tiny little desk. There are two days worth of newspapers spread out around me. I am in bed. It is 3:00 in the afternoon. Isn’t this lazy?

Housework, or guilt at failing to do it well, has long plagued me. I was a stay at home mom for eight years. I was technically a housewife, too, but I refused that term. It implied something that didn’t describe me. I hate housework. I love making home, welcoming people, caring for them, hosting parties, feeding family and friends … but I am no Martha Stewart. I keep house enough to avoid embarrassment or a call from social services, but no more than that.

When my children were small, my sons both suffered bouts of asthma and eczema. My mom called me one morning with news of a new study.

“They have found a link between children who suffer allergies and not enough early exposure to germs,” she said. “Congratulations! You must keep a really clean house!” We both laughed at the irony of it.

I admire my friends, and I’ve had a few, who have immaculate homes. Their organizational skills and endless energy amaze me. They know who they are. I wish I could be more like them. But I’m not.

I come from a line of women who don’t enjoy housework. My mom and her mom before her worked outside the home. My grandmother’s house was a study in intellectual chaos when she died. And my mom hired someone to help with the housework so she could be out building community through politics, business development, or non-profit work. They weren’t lazy for it.

I choose to do a lot of things over housework. Going out with friends. Writing. designing. Corresponding. Planning. Knitting. Drawing. Biking. Walking. Talking. Even cooking … in one pot … making as little mess as possible. Housewife? No … not even a wife for a long time now. But, lazy? I don’t think so.

Nowhere … but Somewhere

Posted Posted in Places

November 28, 2014
I fall instantly in love with places. These eight days on the train I have given my heart to the mesquite-laden hills around Austin … the sun-drenched center of Forth Worth … Saint Louis’ sorrowful elegance the night after the non-indictment … a distant Illinois farm house friended on flatness by a fat silo and tussle of trees … Champaign’s stately stone campus mid-visit by a flying saucer … and countless towns around my home state’s Great Lake. Red brick warehouses warm against gray skies. Black woods traced in snow. Cold creeks crested with arching grasses. Bluish clouds blow sideways from the stacks. Victorian villages line the tracks.

I love them all. My mind makes a future in each one, filling in the unknowns with optimistic dreams of what life could be. I spend a few years there (or months, or minutes) making friends with the neighbors and finding meaningful work building community until a plop of snow drops from a branch and I look again and fall in love again with this new life in front of me.

“I could live there,” I think. “In that house 2nd from the church with the corner store down the street and no fences between yards … I could live there and befriend a few people and make another living.” I know deep down this is not true. I have done that. I have moved many places thinking it would be a piece of cake to start over … and in some ways it is. But in the most important way – having a community of friends, people you love and trust to support one another – it is hard. It takes three years to build that. I wasn’t ready to start over again.

“Where are we?” Mom asks while looking up the map on her phone. “Nowhere … oh, wait, we’re by the finger lakes … above Elmira where your great-great-grandmother landed for a while when she first arrived from Russia … and we’re coming up on Ithaca where your grandmother went to college.” This makes me feel suddenly connected to the landscape in a way that I wasn’t a second ago. So the middle of nowhere was somewhere after all. Perhaps this explains my fickleness for places.

Having no one childhood home (I lived in at least seven different homes growing up) or town (I had no family left in the place I grew up), I looked instead for home in the dozens of places my relatives came from. Rather than a single deep-rooted tree planted firmly in the ground, mine was like an Aspen grove spread out evenly across a broad land, or Michigan’s 40-acre fungus. I have a little history in just about every corner of the nation: Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia. They had all been home to me or my loved ones at some point. If home is where the heart is, my home is nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

Cities of Sorrow

Posted Posted in Places

November 26th, 2014
I slept the least last night so far. Maybe due to a cup of Earl Gray in the early afternoon. Or the decaff coffee after dinner. Or the wine bought by the man who shared our table. Or the billions of bumps and bangs and big sways back and forth in the upper berth. Or the announcement last night that there was to be no indictment of the white police officer who had shot an unarmed young black man a few months ago in Ferguson, a suburb of Saint Louis, where we are going to spend a night.

I am grateful for Saint Louis at 7:30 am. I am grateful this stretch was only half as long as the first stretch on the train. The sun rises over the Mississippi River as the car comes to life with those waking to get off with us. There is construction equipment parked all along the river, optimistic in readiness to build something.

This river, wide and deep and dark and running almost the entire north-south distance of the country, was about as different as I could imagine from the river of my home city. Yet this river spoke to me of my own history. The Mississippi River divided east from west … my first life from my second.

Today this river, deceptively strong with a quick current hidden beneath the smooth surface, is the perfect metaphor for the disquiet happening in Ferguson and in cities across the country. The Mississippi River, its surface glinting in the sun, collects the treasures and detritus of half our nation’s surface waters to sweep them out to sea. Its course is constant but ever so slightly moving over time, tracing the future that we help steer it towards.

Saint Louis downtown is desolate as we visit the old train station across from our hotel.

“Is it always this quiet?” I ask the two women at the information booth at the shopping center that had taken up residency in the repurposed station.

“Oh no,” one says. “It’s usually crowded … everyone is just staying home today.”

“No matter how you look at it, it’s a sad situation,” the other woman says.

Saint Louis, Oakland, New York, Philadelphia … I receive updates in the news and via Facebook showing so many across the country feel the same way. No matter how you look at it, it really is a sad situation.

Who Lives Here?

Posted Posted in Places

November 25th
The train rolls through the backside of cities, past loading docks of old industrial buildings adorned with faded painted monikers and fresh graffiti. Heading out of Dallas-Fort Worth, under the gleaming skyline, we pass the common visage of suburban growth: curving cul-de-sacs lined with crisp new homes and newly-planted twig trees across a fence from sagging clapboard colonials heavy with leaves beneath mature oaks.

Our route is dotted with quaint and quiet Mayberry’s telling the tale of a pre-urban America. Little train stations still serve the once bustling towns, and a few cars line up at the crossings when we pass. I can’t help but dream of life there. So many sweet small towns far enough away from the freeway to be spared the curse of Wal-Mart-ization. What are the stories of those who live here? How do they make their living? What would life be like so far from the frenetic noise of the city?

Who Wants to Do a Green-Off?

Posted Posted in Places

November 24, 2014
“In Fort Worth, you have to see the Kimball Museum,” Jinny said at lunch. “It’s been a couple years, but what I remember most is the brisket and the Kimball.” Jinny’s husband Jim had grown up on the same corner, 110th and Amsterdam Avenue, where my mom lived when she was two. We didn’t get to the Kimball. But the brisket was luscious.

Since I had done little to no research before I left, this was the way we discovered the cities we visited: either the advice of fellow passengers or by walking through them once we were there. We got to Fort Worth on a warm early Sunday afternoon, and saw our gleaming hotel just a couple blocks from the station. From our room, I looked down towards the station and glimpsed people walking through a large plaza of sorts.

Mom and I walked over to discover the Water Gardens: Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s undulating 70s modern landscape. Children, teens, adults and seniors all wandered through, climbed up or down, and gathered in the place of their choice. Canyons, waterfalls, pools, plateaus and mountains emulated the natural formations that inspired them, each created with concrete forms in 20-inch stepped increments. Grids and rows of trees lent shade, scale and color to the manmade landscape. Though concrete, its dark color and rough gravelly texture gave it unexpected warmth and earthiness.

We had just 24 hours in Fort Worth. After a luxurious sleep in a big fluffy bed (nothing like a tiny top train bunk to make you grateful for steady sleep), we treated ourselves to a workout and massage before re-boarding. Forty hours in the train left us stiff and achy.

“How do you like living here?” I asked Adria, my masseuse. She had moved to Fort Worth from San Diego years before.

“Oh I love it,” she said. “It’s a beautiful, friendly city and most of my family is here. And we’re doing our part to go green.” I had told her about my work and why we were training across America. It turns out Fort Worth has a new bicycling initiative with added bike lanes, bike racks and a bicycle share program with 300 bicycles and 35 stations. The city also hosts composting training and a “Green-Off” where two families compete to learn how to reduce their waste, energy use and water use with the help and support of City staff.

Travels (by Train) with Jane

Posted Posted in Notes, Places

“You always meet such nice people on the train,” said the man sitting next to me at lunch. The dining car followed the railroad tradition of community seating. The dining room attendant sat each person or party in order from the front of the car to the back, filling each table. So Mom and I sat with the man, who set out from Los Angeles to Houston to have Thanksgiving with family and friends, and a woman traveling from San Diego to Maryland for her mother’s funeral.

The man was right. Everyone on the train has been courteous, patient, warm. In the 36-hour trip, not once had there been an anxious moment. Not at my starting point, at Los Angeles’ Union Station, where dozens of us stood in line for our boarding passes but no one had to go through security or any level of disrobing. Not on the train platform, where we newbies asked cheerful attendants questions they had heard hundreds of times before. And not on the train itself, where we were jostled along turns and on uneven rails.

Is it that only nice people take trains? Or that traveling by train brings out the nice in all of us? Traveling by train … making your way in stops and starts … across the unfolding countryside … leaves you no option but to slow down and enjoy the ride. There is also some self-selection of patient passengers. Busy people pushing towards their next business meeting didn’t travel by train. There are no bi-coastal work-weeks via Amtrak. There is no wifi on this train to help passengers do business on their way to work. This is travel for those with either the time or enough social anxiety to take the slow road over the super-stress of holiday flights.

I chose Amtrak as an homage to both the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and the recent resurrection of train-travel across America and within our growing cities. As an ecological planner and designer, I want to better understand how cities embrace transit-oriented-development, whether long-standing systems or still evolving. So, I arranged a trip from Los Angeles to New York, with stops in Fort Worth, Saint Louis, Chicago and New York. My mom joined me in Tucson, in honor of her 75th birthday.

AMTRAK Day One: Los Angeles
Union Station, Los Angeles
My sister and son dropped me off at Union Station an hour before the train was to leave. The line for boarding passes wound around the entire rehabbed wooden seating section that is now only open to train passengers.

“Where are you headed?” the man behind me asked. Bent over, he was about my height, but I could tell he used to be quite a bit taller. He was likely in his 70s and wore a plaid shirt tucked neatly into green pants. The letters “PC” followed by three numbers adorned his blue, billed hat.

“Chicago and New York,” I answered. “To spend Thanksgiving with my family.”

“Oh, New York … that’s a crazy town,” he said. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head and pushed his lower lip forward with his chin. “Full of drinking and dancing.”

“My brother lives there,” I said.

“Oh yeah? What does he do?”

“He’s a bartender,” I said flatly, for effect.

“See?” he said, chuckling and shaking his head.

“I’m just kidding,” I said. “I mean, he is a bartender, but he is first a painter.”

“What kind of painting?” he asked.

“Portraits,” I said.

“You’d make a pretty portrait,” he said, nodding his head.

“Thank you,” I said. And then after a moment I asked him, “Where are you heading?”

“Back home to Texas,” he said. “I’m coming from Albany, Oregon … see that tall box?” He pointed across the seating area to a seat with a tall box sticking up under a coat with the letters USN.

“That’s a pelican I found down by the Port … it’s made of mahogany.” Again, the eyebrows and the lip.

“It must be beautiful,” I said, gathering the meaning behind his expression.

“I was in New York in 1963 for New Year’s Eve,” he said. “I took a train to White Plains to visit a friend of mine after our service … we chopped wood for two days, then took the train to Penn Station, then took a cab to Times Square, and …” he raised his eyebrows, dipped his head and pushed out his lower lip again, letting me surmise the rest. “They boarded up the windows because we were a wild bunch.”

The people in front of us shuffled forward, and as we moved along the man behind me perched on the arm of any empty chair. He never stopped talking. Halfway to the ticket booth, he perched beside a man wearing a full white beard and brown coveralls.

“Howdy Chief,” he said in greeting.

“How,” the man said back. He nodded at the pelican man’s hat. “I don’t look like a chief, but you look like a captain … what boat?”

“It was a World War II vessel,” he answered. “We restored it.”

“I was gonna say, you don’t look old enough for World War II,” the bearded man said.

“Nah, I served ’56-’59.”

“I did ’77-’80,” the bearded man responded. “My ship was the Midway, she’s now docked in San Diego, as part of the museum.”

“I’ve been on the Midway,” I said, happy to relate something to the conversation.

“So have I!” the bearded man enthused back. “Why were you on it?”

“I took my sons,” I said.

“Are they in the service?”

“No, but my 17-year-old wants to be,” I said. “At least he did then.”

“You don’t look like you could have a 17-year-old,” the pelican man said. “I would have said you were in your mid-20s.” Now I knew he was just flattering me.

“Thank you,” I said. “You’re sweet.”

It took 45 minutes to reach the window, where the woman informed me I didn’t need a boarding pass since I was already assigned a roomette.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Someone should have told you you didn’t have to wait in that long line!”

I didn’t mind.

A Garden for Drought

Posted Posted in At Home

I am not one of those Midwest transports to Los Angeles that basks in the endless sun of summer (and fall and winter) and complains when the thermometer falls below 60. Though I remember the dire sadness of the 109th gray day in a row before spring, I need one every now and then. I love rain. More than that, I need rain. Of course, we all do, for physical survival, but I’m talking on a metaphysical level. Before the too-brief-but-oh-so-nice rain last week, I suffered physical cravings for rain. As the water finally fell from the sky, it filled the air with humidity and quenched my thirst, my pores, my hair, my spirit. Just as my garden, and all of our gardens, thickened with the life that only fresh rainwater can bring, so I felt a deep relief that comes from having weather in Los Angeles. I need more. Yesterday’s gray day was another nice respite from my reverse seasonal affect disorder.

The remarkable thing about these years of drought is that my garden survives. Despite my neglect and refusal (or forgetfulness) to water even once a month, it lives. It even flowers … during summer. I lost only one established plant this summer. The rest, a combination of California natives and Mediterranean adapted plants, have managed to hang in there. With a little planning and intentionally closing the loops in my garden and house, the garden gives back more than it takes. Graywater from the washing machine waters my fruit trees. The leaves are left as mulch to build healthy soil and conserve soil moisture. I use no chemicals. Ladybugs come find the aphids when there is a little outbreak. I have no lawn, and no need for power tools that create noise and use fossil fuels.

The garden gives shade, cooling the air outside and inside on hot summer days. We get fresh oranges from fall through spring, though they are quite a bit smaller this year. Grapes line the driveway fence between me and my neighbor’s house. And hummingbirds, butterflies, lizards, salamanders, skunks, squirrels, a possum or two and likely millions of insects inhabit every corner and crevice. For me, the garden gives respite from the stress of life. An hour in the hammock under the oak tree watching the dance of wind, leaves, birds and insects … and feeling the sun … and breathing the fresh air … leaves me whole and full. The garden gives life and beauty. The garden gives.

Bicycle Kills Driver on Freeway

Posted Posted in At Home

This is the headline that went through my mind yesterday afternoon as I watched a bicycle flying towards me on the freeway, moments after being jarred loose from a bike rack on the car ahead of me in the lane next to mine. It hit the pavement, and bounced in the unpredictable way you’d expect from a twisting object with two rubber tires. It’s trajectory was directly towards me. I moved as close to the right side of my lane as I could without risking being sideswiped by a car.

“Isn’t this ironic?” I asked myself, images of the steel BMX frame impaling me behind the steering wheel I gripped for my life. I ducked in reflex, and watched it fly past, just inches from my window.

Ironic indeed. It would have been. When was the last time you heard about a bicycle killing a driver? And yet the reverse happens all too often. Advocating for bike lanes, sidewalks, and safer community design for everyone is something we all have the power and the right to do.

Thank you Governor Brown for signing the 3′ passing law! And please, if you live in Northeast L.A., go fight for bike lanes on Figueroa Boulevard at the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council tonight:


The Process

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Notes

I can always find a reason not to write. But the mornings I take the time to do it, however short, I feel more myself. Writing lets me sort through the fog of what I’m thinking to access my feelings. Writing grounds me.

I used to write only in long hand. Pen on paper drawing out a line of reason as if my thoughts were the ink itself. Now my mind has become just as adept at translating itself through typing as through handwriting. And sometimes I think even moreso since typing with both hands accesses both sides of my brain.

Yesterday I had lunch with someone I’ve long admired, who shares my love of writing.

“I haven’t had time to write in a long time,” she said. I thought back to graduate school, when I felt the same way. Joan Woodward, one of the reasons I moved to California to study, had suggested reading Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. In it, Lamott makes her case for writing a little every day, even if for only ten minutes.

Skeptical of this approach, I finally began doing it myself a few years ago. Before waking the children, before morning yoga, before showering and dressing for work, I’d wake up and type out my thoughts for a mere half hour each morning. I’d get a page or so in that time. If I was really flowing, I’d stretch out my time to 40 minutes or even an hour, and skip yoga. Some weekends I’d take the whole morning, or a day if the kids were at their dad’s.

I wrote a book that way. It took a whole year to find the structure. Another to write it out. And another for revisions. But what a great exercise for someone who had only tackled 20 page stories before. When I started I didn’t know whether I had it in me to write a book. Now I know I’ve got much more.

In the end, the writing isn’t about the finished story at all. It’s about the process of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and opening the door to my thoughts and feelings. I know several people who will smile and nod their head in agreement over a lesson hard-learned:

It’s about the process.

Road Trip

Posted Posted in Places

My two teenage sons and I started the summer with a road trip. A road trip of the sort that we all both dreaded and looked forward to at the same time. A trip across the entire United States … or at least most of it. Their dad and I had taken our two oldest children on a three week road trip when they were aged three and five. Our youngest hadn’t been born yet. Hearing about that adventure most of his life, he casually threw out one day, “I want to do a road trip.”

I decided this was something I could give him, requiring nothing more than a car, gas and food and hotel money, and time. Lots of time. We would start at their dad’s house in North Carolina, where my daughter was graduating high school, and end at my house in Los Angeles. Once I had plans well under way, I let the boys know we were going to do it. They were not happy.

“I thought you wanted to go on a road trip,” I reminded my youngest.

“Yeah, when I’m 16,” he said. “Not now.” I decided this was a good thing. Every kid needs to experience the tedium of the iconic family road trip, right? Neither of them had grand expectations. It wouldn’t be too hard to surpass their nightmares of what the trip would be.

Planning a road trip as a single parent was a little daunting. My 16-year-old has his learner’s permit, but because I was renting a car for a one-way route, he would not be able to help drive. Rental car companies require drivers to be a minimum of 21. As the day approached for us to leave I began to worry whether I could physically drive 36 hours in a week’s time. Usually I lost stamina for driving after just a couple hours, and often came close to falling asleep at the wheel on long trips. I planned a couple non-driving days along the way, just to ease my mind and give us a rest.

We left Statesville, NC, on a Sunday and drove just five hours to stay with my cousins in Atlanta. It was a good primer. From there, we drove through Selma, Alabama, where my grandmother was raised, and into New Orleans to stay with my friend Betsy for two nights. We left New Orleans for San Antonio, making it in on the night the city celebrated the Spurs’ NBA victory. Then onto El Paso, the lowlight of my trip, but the highlight for my sons who spent two hours skateboarding in a wide drainage channel. We ended the trip in Tucson where we stayed with my mom for two nights before driving the last leg to L.A.

We survived. There were some tense moments and angry moments and tiring moments. But lots of good moments too. Eight hours a day in the car with my sons renewed my knowledge of them. We took turns playing our music. We talked about their old schools, and houses and neighborhoods. We reminisced about summer and family and friends. We shared lots of silence. Comfortable silence. And I only had one day of uncontrollable fatigue – the day I splurged on sugar against my better judgment.

When we reached Los Angeles, my sister met us for dinner.

“How was the road trip?” she asked.

“It was good,” my 16-year-old replied before I had a chance to respond. His brother nodded his head in agreement. And with that, the road trip was everything I had hoped it would be.