The Runner Diaries: 4/15/20

In need of a trickle of cash after the yoga studio where I taught shut down due to pandemic, I signed on as an independent contractor with the company Favor.  As the name implies, the independent contractors do favors for the customers, generally picking up to-go orders from restaurants or running shopping errands.  The position is called being a “Runner”, presumably due to errand running, but in light of present conditions it sounds to me futuristic, daring, dystopian.

Today I logged onto the app at around 11:30 after getting my kids settled into their online schoolwork.  They ate late breakfasts, so I was able to spend the busy lunch hours running Favors for others.  It took less then a minute for my phone to ping with an opportunity, which I accepted.   This first Favor of the day involved ordering cookies from a fancy shop I’d never been to, then picking up and delivering to a house an eight minute drive away.

The cookie shop was the sort of breezy, preppy, summery outdoor walk-up counter you might find on Nantucket, or in the Hamptons, or in certain neighborhoods in Houston (in fact, it is the spin-off of a Houston establishment, I learned).  Steely Dan played from speakers mounted under the eaves.  My customer wanted six chocolate chip cookies and six sugar cookies.   It came to nearly $45 for the dozen.  The masked, gloved young woman behind the window handed me a bag that looked as if it might contain an elegantly boxed scarf or bowtie.  I stepped with it into my Kia, rubbed a generous squirt of hand sanitizer between my palms, and began the eight minute drive.

Listening to podcasts while running Favors provides a sense of purpose to the time spent driving around.  On this day I checked in with The Writer’s Voice from The New Yorker, and was pleased to see the two most recent episodes were readings by writers I really enjoy.  The most recent, somehow from an issue of the magazine that hasn’t even come out yet, was by Ben Lerner.  I pressed play and shifted into reverse as Deborah Treisman’s pleasant familiar voice introduced Ben and his story.

Listening to podcasts while running Favors requires patience due to constant interruption.  The navigation tool telling me, in stilted words, when to turn, what lane to get into, etc.  The Ben Lerner story was a little hard to follow anyway, and after getting chopped up by Siri it came across as extremely odd, disjointed, even surreal.  I was surprised and slightly disappointed by his voice.  I was sure I’d heard interviews with him before, that this was not the first time I’d heard his voice, but he read this particular story in what I think of as “poetry voice.”  A self-serious style of reading, a certain cadence, a predictability that I try very hard not to affect when reading aloud my own work.

When the magazine arrives, I will read his story in print, and I will probably think it wonderful, as I do most of his work (maybe all of his work?).

The second Favor was the type most common these days, a grocery errand for a senior citizen.  Favor was bought by a large Texas grocery chain called HEB, and they have a deal to help seniors not leave their homes by using Favor Runners to shop for them instead.  It means that at HEB or Central Market (the upscale version) I can flash my Favor order and Favor debit card and skip the line, rock star style.

This also provides me a chance to do my own shopping without waiting in line to enter the store; as I shop the Favor order I put aside a few items for my household, then perform separate transactions at the register.

George Saunders was my second listen, en route to the grocery store, from the store to the customer’s home, then back to mine.  His story was called “The Love Letter”.  It was easier to follow than Lerner’s, even with the chop, and I enjoy Saunders’ voice.  I used to play a video of his 2013 Syracuse University convocation speech (“On Kindness”) to the middle schoolers I taught, back when I was a teacher.

The elderly couple I shopped for were very organized with their list, placing produce together, pantry items together, etc.  The woman, Marion, was delighted that I was familiar with Finn Crisps, and that Central Market had all three types of fish she wanted in plentiful stock (no ground chicken, though).

It was a stunning afternoon.  Many people were out walking, biking jogging, some in family groups, some solo, some with masks on, some without.

The Saunders story ended at the traffic light at Lamar and 45th Street, so I drove the remaining few blocks home in silence, enjoying the sunlight, savoring the peace.

Notes from a Pandemic

Professionals are advising we may never return to the custom of handshaking.  My Macho Bullshit dislikes that prognosis!  My Macho Bullshit loves delivering a good firm handshake, the sort that places the shaker in the Alpha spot of that binary situation.  A firm shake, a steady grip, a calm gaze into the eyes of the recipient.  Oh, how My Macho Bullshit will miss such dynamics.

My Macho Bullshit wonders for a moment whether fist bumps will be re-permitted, but doubts it.  Physical contact, probably a no-go.  MMB was stellar at fist bumping, could bump fists with the best of them, and could really out-bump most of them.  A strong, solid, on-target bump followed by a spectacular disaster of finger fireworks.  No one any  better at this, truly, than MMB.

MMB detects a sensation.  Is this a feeling?  MMB considers reaching for a Scotch but remembers that Scotch no longer does the trick, in fact plays other tricks, rather nasty ones involving headaches and lost time.  Hmmmm.  Feel the feeling, MMB tells itself.

This is a time in which to release, in which to let go of the stuff we no longer need.  Memo received; MMB is on it.  MMB is participating.  MMB has taken bags to Goodwill, back when Goodwill was still open!  MMB is letting go the veils of illusion: pedicures, a slim waist, white teeth, urinating in the correct places.   MMB is on board!

My Macho Bullshit is undergoing an existential crisis.   Is the thing that needs to be let go… is it… my macho bullshit?

Instructions

lie down on your belly in the grass

let it be uncomfortable, wish for what you wish

that grass isn’t going away until you rot it with your corpse, so–

breathe

deeper

deeper, come on, like you mean it

mash the grass

with love, with breath, with love

 

 

Karl Ove Knausgaard

wrote, “Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows”.  The way this walks the line between mystery and clarity resonates with me.  While I like his work a lot, I have not read the book this quote is taken from; I found it in an essay by Rachel Cusk.  The timing was fun in that I’d just read his article about Anselm Kiefer and was excited to track down a copy of his book Summer, which includes watercolors by Kiefer.  Many years ago I watched a documentary about Kiefer– I was a little surprised the film had not been mentioned in the article– and reading the article made me want to rewatch the film.

a501bf1a0cf6e5143f386ee19317c314.jpgA similar situation arose a few days ago.  En route to/from Ikea, I listened to a New Yorker fiction podcast episode in which a novelist named Andrea Lee, whose work I don’t know, read aloud a Murakami short story from a 1992 issue of the magazine.  I chose that episode because I like Murakami.  I had recently read a new story by him in the magazine, and last year I’d seen the film Burning, which was based on Barn Burning, the story being read.   Listening to the story read aloud made me want to rewatch that film.  I hadn’t realized he stole the title, Barn Burning, from a Faulkner story; I am ignorant of Faulkner.  My little exposure to his work was eons ago and I didn’t care for it.  I have never been enamored by Southern literature, which is obviously all about my personal biases rather than a qualitative assessment of the genre.

In addition to wanting to rewatch the film, I felt drawn to check out what Murakami I have on my bookshelf, maybe revisit some of that.  I found The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, which I’d always meant to read but never have.  It’s not my book, it belongs to Chris, and when I showed him that I was reading it he said how much he’d enjoyed it and mentioned he’d gotten it in California when we were on a trip there together.  When we travel, we always seek out local bookstores.  I’ve always loved having books on my shelf that remind me of the place they were purchased.

#doingthings… alone

I’m a difficult person to be friends with because I prefer to do most things by myself.   I jotted this in my notebook at Barton Springs yesterday on a stunning early spring (in Austin spring begins around President’s Day) afternoon.  The water was blue, the pool nearly empty.   A perfect opportunity to suggest to a friend, let’s meet at Barton Springs.  Ah, but that word, meet, and its troubling implications.  Meet suggests that we’ll show up somewhere at a predetermined time, and presumably remain there, together, for a somehow at least vaguely understood spell.   Also a presumption of interaction.   I prefer to show up when I feel like it– maybe I decide to wash my hair first (well, not before Barton Springs), finish a chapter in a book, or re-walk my dog– and I like to be able to leave when I want to leave.  I must acknowledge how sickeningly privileged this may sound, and yeah, I have it better than a lot of people, but I live simply.  I am privileged to manage periodic chunks of time to spend writing, thinking, procrastinating or swimming because I have organized my life like that at the expense of things like husbands, stability, a retirement plan, a wardrobe of elegant clothes.  I do splurge on books, though, when able.

It’s more like me to say, I’ll probably be at Barton Springs sometime today with a book; if you feel like a swim, we can spread out towels near each other and enjoy the feel of warm sun on our bare legs.  Screen Shot 2020-02-26 at 7.12.13 PM.pngAnd if we do have the semi-planned serendipity to overlap on the weed-grassed banks, maybe we’ll also end up, together, in the outdoor women’s changing courtyard (though only if we feel like changing at the same time… and if you’re a woman),  marveling at the concrete overhangs, snapping photos of the etched rivulets with our shitty old phones, feeling the sun warm the cool damp places from which we’ve recently peeled off our warm still slightly wet bathing suits.  Baptized, desiccated, ecstatic.  Calm and electric, smelling of moss.  We’ll hug with authentic joy.  It may be a year until we see each other again. 

Thasos

This summer I have the chance to spend two weeks at a writers’ residency on the island of Thasos, in the Thracian Sea.  Holy crow! I’d never heard of Thasos before; I’m ignorant of Greek geography aside from what I learned reading a children’s version of the Odyssey over and over and over again aloud to my younger son.  A few years ago, when the first waves of refugees were landing on Greek islands, I was deeply interested in taking my sons to Lesbos to have an adventure and lend our hands.  I’d read an article about another family who had done so, and their experience sounded powerful, something I wanted for my own.  I was too worried about the cost to move forward, one of the reasons I am trying not to let cost prohibit me from this opportunity.

So what do I know about Thasos?  Almost nothing.  I have a sometimes unfortunate obsession with logistics, so I know you fly into Thessaloniki to get there by by ferry.  I had a friend in high school who moved to that city (her parents were academics and her father had a position at the American University there, I think ) and invited me to visit.  I can not remember why I didn’t; maybe my parents wouldn’t let me–   again, the cost.  How have I never been to Greece?  The Germans probably have a word for what I feel:  a sense of entitlement due to past thwart.

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When I First Moved to Texas

 

24 years ago this month, it was to a six-week sublet near what used to be the edge of downtown (why in the world I’m still here is another story.)  I enjoyed the location, near a couple of restaurants and coffee shops, and next to a school that presented me with the unfamiliar sounds of children playing.  There was a moonlight tower on the corner that shone directly through a window onto my bed at night;  my periods got all out of whack until I rigged a black-out curtain, after which I started to miss the permanent moonlight.  I walked regularly to my local health food store, a place called Whole Foods.  I was low-level horrified that they sold meat; not the case at Integral Yoga Natural Foods in NYC, where I’d worked for awhile during college, enjoying the staff discounts for groceries, smoothies and yoga.  Whole Foods had just moved from its original location next to a gas station in a flood zone to a nice shopping center with a book store and I don’t remember what else.  There was a studio on the second floor where I studied Sufi mystical dance with a woman named Dunya.  I was into tarot and got goose bumps when I learned that her name meant “The World”.

IMG_3321Sometimes I drove to the shopping center, if I were on my way to or from somewhere farther away.  In Austin in general, I was struck by how many cars sported bumper stickers; I’d never lived anywhere that had such a culture of automobile decor as self-expression.   I remember pulling out of that particular parking lot behind an especially bedazzled vehicle ( the rule still seems to hold that the shittier the car the more likely to have stickers, and more shitty among the shit, the more stickers likely to be had).  It was then that the idea came to me to get a bumper sticker made that said, “Ask Me About My Abortion”.  

I loved this flash of inspiration.  I’d never had a bumper sticker.  I drove an old blue Mazda, so I had right raw material to work with, and it felt authentic to me as an artist to fabricate my own message.  I wanted to be inclusive, to bridge gaps, to start conversations.  To empower women.  To shine light into dark places, like the tower had done to my bedroom.  For me, the statement had the right mix of sass, humor and sincerity.  It felt provocative yet authentic.

But then I started to realize it might not be such a hot idea.  BBQ at the health food store, guns and Republicans just past the city limits (a new friend took me to the rodeo; he might have taken me to Mars).   Slapping that on the back of your car would be a good way to get your tires slashed, the New Yorker in me rationally positioned.  Or worse, the dubious stranger-in-a-strange-land in me replied.

Years passed, decades passed, yet I am really fucking tenacious when it comes to ideas.  Maybe this has to do with being a 5 on the Enneagram.  For years I gingerly unfolded emptied and dried hundreds of tea bags; it was perhaps ten years later that I got around to using them as part of an art project called The Dendochronology of Domestic Destruction (or something like that).   I still have the left overs in a  shoe box, waiting for another project.   This very blog I began in 2012, abandoned for several years, and voila now it’s risen from the dead.  After my second divorce, the event that inspired the DDD series, I revisited the “Ask Me” idea.  A t-shirt, I thought.  It should be something personal, worn on a body.

Ask me about my abortion.

A t-shirt….  might be asking for a gunshot wound.  I could always carry a vest to throw on over it…. but still.

Finally I settled on a baseball cap.  Easy to remove in a hurry.  This was pre-MAGA; I chose the red white and blue as a funny yet simple aesthetic statement.  I had several made, as I was certain they would be in high demand.  I did give one to an acquaintance as we met over lunch to discuss a business idea.  I hadn’t brought it for her, I was just wearing it myself, but she admired it so I let her take it home.  For most of our lunch it sat on the table off to the side next to a window overlooking the restaurant’s patio.  A cluster of gay men sat down outdoors, and began enthusiastically rapping the window, pointing to the cap, and giving us the thumbs up.

I rarely wear the cap.  Often I end up at an event and wish I’d brought it along, but it’s there in my pajama drawer, a reminder every time I see it of both my intention to create dialogue and the difficulty of following through on that intention.