I Won’t Ask, But…

When I was growing up, the kids I went to grade school with would always ask each other “what nationality are you?” Since we were pretty much all Americans, what we really meant was “what ethnicity are you?” I guess we were going on the assumption I still have, that being an American is a citizenship, not an ethnicity, and we were curious about the various places our friends’ families had come from.

Maybe this was the genesis of my affinity for heritage and ancestry. Or maybe it just dovetailed nicely with an inborn need to classify my environment — the same way I always, always have to know what time it is.

I still wonder what ethnicity people are, unless it’s obvious. But I would never ask, because I’m afraid it would seen as a version of all the “things white people say to [insert non-white ethnicity here].”

And I also wonder about gender, when I see an androgynous person. I’d be even less likely to try to find out the gender of a person than I would their ethnicity. But I will spend an entire BART ride wondering about either or both of those things respecting fellow commuters.

The third thing I always wonder about is age. I like to orient myself as older or younger than whomever I’m talking with. I’m less likely to wonder about the age of someone I simply see, but I definitely want to know how old my friends, acquaintances, and coworkers are. It’s the thing that’s closest to my need to know what time it is.

I’m just curious; I just like to have information. I have had friends and lovers of various ethnicities and combinations thereof, and I’ve learned things about their ancestral cultures, so I would at least try not to ask stupid or offensive questions about ethnicity. And I’m not just curious about whether someone is, say, Korean or Japanese. I’m curious if someone is Dutch or German, Spanish or Italian, Chilean or Argentinian. I’m an equal-opportunity busybody, apparently.

I have no real need to know someone’s heritage, gender, or age, but my curiosity is simple and sincere.

And I know I sound like some cranky conservative kvetching, “These days you can’t ask a simple question without someone getting offended!” The thing is, I don’t want to offend anyone, and so I don’t ask any of these questions except when I know for certain it won’t be taken badly. Actually, I’d never ask a gender question, but age and ethnicity I will occasionally venture into.

Oh, and I’m English/Scottish/Danish, about to turn 47, and a cisgender woman. Just in case anyone wondered.


Giving Up, Parts One and Two

Part One

When I was around eight, I kept bugging my mother to take me to church. Something was driving me. I wanted to go so badly. My mother was a (lapsed) (Northern) Baptist and my father was a (lapsed) Catholic. Since I was closer to my mother, and she was less lapsed than my dad, eventually I started going to the Baptist church.

My Baptist upbringing was not at all like what most people describe as a Baptist upbringing. Although our church didn’t allow alcohol on the premises, my mother and many of her church friends drank elsewhere. Our pastor once described being served sherry at a little old lady’s home and rather than offend her, he drank it, even though he himself was a teetotaler. Dancing was fine. No hellfire-and-brimstone sermons were ever preached in our church.

As a kid, I took for granted that God existed and, like many other things from childhood, things seemed simple on that front. On the other hand, for various reasons I kept becoming convinced I was bound for hell. So that was fun…sort of.

My mother had gone to the same church as a teenager and a lot of the adults were her friends from that era; a lot of the kids went to school with me. It’s one of the few places in life I’ve actually felt comfortable and part of a group, for the most part. I sang in the adult choir even though I was still a kid, because I was advanced for my age and a good solid second soprano. For several years, the pastor’s daughter was my best friend — until she became pretty and popular and I, not so much. Then her father left the ministry and so that edgy dynamic disappeared.

Throughout my childhood, though, I was wistful that it hadn’t been my dad taking me to church. I was absolutely fascinated by the world of my Catholic friends — rosary beads, nuns, statues, missals, crucifixes, Fathers.  I appropriated a 1960s St. Josephs Missal that my dad had, which had belonged to one his aunts. (I still have it. Such illustrations!) I read and re-read The Song of Bernadette when I was around nine, amazed that there were actual photographs of saints — and I did consider all the saints to be saints, somehow, even if I was totally unclear on the concept of what “praying to the saints” meant. I had the usual Protestant misconception about that. I always knew I didn’t want to get married in our blond-wood sanctuary with grey vinyl padded pews, frosted glass windows, and one lone, unadorned cross over the baptismal font in the back of what we called an altar, although there was no actual altar there. I figured I probably would, though, if I ever did get married.

And then I went to college. A Catholic college, actually. For the first time I was taught by nuns — though none of them wore habits — and it was there that I totally lost my faith. I had never considered all the obvious questions about creation, other faiths, contradictions…things that cause some people to lose their faith and things that people who keep it need to grapple with. I also discovered politics, and in the volatile mid-to-late 80s that was often about the right to choose and feminism in general.

That left me in an emotional whirlpool. If there was no God, then there was nothing after death, and my lifelong terror of death was justified, because it meant I would cease to exist, and that also rendered life meaningless to me, since no matter what I or anyone did, we would just be extinguished when we died. On the other hand, those conservative Christians were absolutely wacko  … so … (My apologies to any conservative Christians who may read this, although I doubt any conservative Christians will.)

I made one last-ditch effort to save my belief by taking to the chaplain and deciding to become Catholic. When he told me how you had to go through RCIA and then be presented to the bishop — a process totally foreign to non-liturgical-Protestant me — I fled from that. And into total unbelief, and anger at the people who believed and were using that belief to keep the United States back, even as I mourned not having faith in an afterlife.

And I stayed in this conflict whirlpool until I was around 28.

I was on a plane to Alaska reading about the Romanovs. There was quite a lot about the Russian Orthodox Church, and I knew Alaska was a bastion of Russian Orthodoxy, but while visiting my then-boyfriend there wasn’t really a chance to find one, especially as he lived in a semi-rural community and this was just before the Internet was a part of everyone’s phone.

I came home, did some research to assuage my curiosity, and found that, yes indeed, they mean it when they say Orthodox. What was a pro-choice feminist thinking? (Oh, but the Liturgy!)

During my research, I felt myself drawn to the Episcopal Church. Anglican! Liturgical! Not (for the most part) right-wing! I wondered why I was so interested in religion all of a sudden — to soothe my fear of death? Give life meaning? Give me back the ritual I hadn’t had since I aged out of Rainbow? Or was it actually the promptings of spirit?

From 1996 until 2012, and then with one more last hurrah in 2013, I tried like anything to believe. I joined the Episcopal Church in 1996 and was married in a Very Very High Church wedding in a beautiful Episcopal church in Berkeley in 1997. (We had a female priest, but we had incense and stupendous music and the Eucharist.)  In 2002, as that marriage was exploding all around my head, I joined the Catholic Church — RCIA and all. (In a not-beautiful parish that wouldn’t know High Churchery if it hit it in the head, but it was dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes and the people were lovely.)

I eventually ended up in a very conservative parish where I wore a mantilla and where they didn’t sing any of the really ridiculous Oregon Catholic Press/David Haas music; offered confession in actual kneeling, anonymous confessionals before every Mass; and actually had the Latin Mass before Pope Benedict made it more easily accessible. I was trying desperately, by clinging to things — my missal, Latin, my mantilla, my rosary, my Divine Mercy chaplet, everything — to force myself to believe. I even looked into Orthodoxy again — I actually agree with them about things like the filioque and some other issues to do with soteriology, if you take the fundamental premises of Christianity as given.

I left that parish the day the priest compared Obama to Hitler. You’ve just Godwinned me out of God, I thought. I had pushed aside all of my philosophical difficulties, simply not thinking about them — because really, my social and political beliefs were simply not reconcilable — but that was too much. The fact that they thought Masons were evil plotters, when as a Rainbow Girl I’d been surrounded by hundreds of benign Masons who couldn’t plot their way out of a paper bag? Oh well. The fact that they thought yoga as practiced in American yoga studios was malevolent and spiritual-but-not-in-a-good-way, when I’d taken yoga classes, knew that wasn’t true, and also knew that just about every person I knew who did yoga was pretty unspiritual? OK, whatever. Praying for the “pro-life” cause every week? Sigh, yes, I knew this was what I was signing up for being Catholic. The edict against any sex outside of marriage and even civil unions for gay folks? Ditto. But the Hitler comparison was just the last straw.

I went back to the Episcopal Church, but I felt half-hearted about it. I wanted to want it, I wanted to believe, I wanted to have an anchor and some hope, but last year I could no longer keep trying.

I just don’t believe in the core Christian teachings.

I want to.

I wish I did.

I wish that I did and that there was a way to reconcile what I know and believe about life with having faith, but I don’t and I can’t.

Still fascinated by religion, I read a lot about people of faith, and essays and memoirs by them. I miss liturgy — structure and ritual — and I miss the practice of study that having scriptures invites. (I know, I should just join Eastern Star now that they admit Majority Rainbow Girls who aren’t related to Masons and get my ritual fix, and go back to school for the study. Actually and unfortunately, I wouldn’t fit in with the Eastern Star women anymore either, alas. I would love, love, love to go to graduate school, but that’s a whole other issue to tangle with.)

It does feel good, though, to give up. The struggle and tension between things I knew to be true (and things I suspected to be true) and things I was willing myself to believe were true was painful and exhausting, and letting it snap and fly away was like taking off too-tight shoes after a long day of walking.

I don’t consider myself an atheist, but an agnostic. I don’t think the Christian story is true, but I am not discounting that a) I could be wrong or b) there may indeed be a God, or something we might as well call God. And in all honesty, I hope there is, because simply ceasing to exist at the moment of death is, to me, even worse than the thought of being fundamentally alone in the universe while I’m alive.

In some ways I feel like I wasted nearly twenty years trying to force myself into a mold I cannot fit in. But there’s no point in ruefulness. It was interesting, if nothing else. And maybe someday I will find something I believe and a niche into which I can fit. We shall see.

Part Two

Has nothing to do with religion and is considerably shorter!

My job. Oh God, my job. For three years I loved it, and then a rotation happened and they sent me out to talk to strangers all day, right? And honestly, it’s been pretty awful. There are days that are okay, and individual interactions that are nice, but overall, I’m tired and miserable and I am counting the days until I get rotated back.

If only I knew when that was…I have joked (okay, “joked”) that at least when you go to prison they tell you how long your sentence is. If I knew when my blessed release from this assignment was coming I could count down the days. I do at least know every day is one day closer to whenever that is. It’s been six months. Six months of my indeterminate sentence completed.

A day came several months ago where everything came to a head. Not going into details, but I knew that if I didn’t think of a solution, I was going to either get fired (not an easy thing to do with my employer, thankfully) or come home and do something rash.

In the end, I combined two approaches. One was suggested by a friend who hates/is as bad at customer service as I do/am: When she had to do this sort of thing, she pretended she was playing a role. It was a movie or a play, and she was simply playing the part of The Employee. To the extent that this doesn’t work, I…simply don’t care anymore. My mantra is “OK. Whatever.” A member gets mad or agitated? OK, whatever. Someone yells at me? OK, whatever. I get asked to do something I, with every fiber of my being, don’t want to do? OK, whatever. Nothing matters. Whatever. I’ll just do it, accept it, take it, because it doesn’t matter — whatever comes next is bound to be unpleasant, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

I do my best and don’t generally screw much up, but I have ceased to care what happens. I don’t even cringe away from all the things I have to do that I am so bad at — the talking to strangers all day, the endless patience I have to project when I am the least patient person on the planet. I liken it to the way when drunk drivers get in accidents, they’re not the ones who get hurt because they’re all floppy and relaxed. I am floppy and relaxed in the face of this rotation, in the face of all the strangers I have to deal with, in the face of all the  terrifying stuff they ask me to do.

I also take a lot of anti-anxiety meds,  but without Playacting and Not Caring, it wouldn’t be enough.

And it feels so much better. I’m still exhausted at the end of every day, but less so — I don’t have to go to bed at 7:30 PM anymore. I still get depressed and full of dread on Sunday nights, but I apply Oh Well Whatever and it eases a bit. I still will go buy a bottle of real Champagne and drink it all myself when I finally get rotated back into the back, but I think I can survive until then. Floppy. Relaxed.

As the old Ashleigh Brilliant postcard says: “I feel much better now that I’ve given up hope.”

Sounds very dreary, but I think of it more as just backfloating down the river of this assignment, not fighting the current, and waiting for it to be over.

So two struggles let go. I wonder if this will give me more emotional energy for other things!




Get Your Pre-Monday Right Here

Ye gods and little fishes, it’s Sunday night again.

My current job assignment has sent me to the doctor twice in four months for stress-and-anxiety-related stuff. Tomorrow I have to go for something else, and I am so miserable with work that there is an awful voice inside half-wishing it were something serious because then I might get a break. How terrible is that?!

I am looking for ways to have some energy in the evenings, so that I don’t end up in bed at 7:45 after being gone from 6:15 to 6:15. So far I’ve come up with: Have a cool shower as soon as I’ve fed the cats, to invigorate me and help me stay vertical; have a cup of espresso; do some gentle yoga. I know exercise is supposed to be good but the walking I have recently incorporated into my days has actually made me more exhausted at night (I know that’s just short-term adjustment). Having said that, when I go abroad I walk everywhere and it wears me out, so I need to do more of it here in order to be in some semblance of shape then!

Still…this is one hellish rotation for this here introvert with general anxiety!

Today has been a day of knitting, reading, a lot of black coffee, and The Day I Saw Your Heart. Is it just me, or does Mélanie Laurent look like a cross between Scarlett Johanssen and a young Rosanna Arquette? It was a good movie, and I caught quite a bit of the language, which makes me happy, but a bit wrenching as well. Nonetheless it was good to spend ninety minutes in France this afternoon.
And now I think I am going to be a totally irresponsible person and get fast food for dinner. If I were in France I might go to the local brasserie — like the one at Place de la Nation where I had my last lunch in Paris in 2012, the yummy Alsatian butter noodles and chicken — but since I’m not, and since I have not got cooking mojo today, I’m defaulting to lowest common denominator here.

Space (the Elbow Room Kind)

I was talking with a friend of mine recently. He’s as much of an italophile as I am a francophile; he hopes to retire to Italy one day. (I think he has a better chance of doing it than I do of retiring to France, but we shall see.) To make ourselves feel better, we made a list of things we actually prefer about the United States, since we can both go on all day long about what we prefer about Europe in general and our favorite countries in particular.

The biggest thing, no pun intended, was space. He and his partner have a big house and I have a pretty darn big condo and while homes of these sizes do, indeed, exist in Europe, they’d be way, way, way, way out of our price range, or possibly very far into the countryside (or both).

Tonight I was watching Rachel Khoo’s Little Paris Kitchen show (I bought the cookbook on my Powell’s jaunt last June). I am amazed by what people in tiny kitchens can do —  I saw it in action in 2012 at my friend S’ place in Paris as well. I was just looking at her web site, and she says her entire apartment is 21 square meters. That’s 226 square feet. My condo is 1752 square feet, or almost 163 square meters.

So, yeah. Space.

Having said that, I have always had a secret dream of paring everything down and living in a totally efficient and cozy tiny place. My problem would be my books, although again my friend S squeezes tons of books into every corner of her Parisian apartment, so maybe I’d just have to be creative!

Besides the fact that it’s, well, in Paris, I’m also envying her kitchen tile, seen in the photo here. I am considering whether I could do something like that under my cabinets. Another thing to add to my maybe-to-do list!


This kind of book is right up my alley, alongside slice-of-life, almost-plotless foreign films. I ended up marking or Post-It-marking several quotes where I was saying (sometimes aloud) “Yes! Me too!”

“Bad news makes me unhappy but satisfies my paranoia.”

“When I am happy I’m afraid of dying, when I’m unhappy I’m afraid of not dying.”

“When something wonderful takes me by surprise, I try to reproduce the circumstances under which it occurred, in order to make it happen again, but that is confusing the thing with the grace of accident.” (I remember many times doing this as a kid, very deliberately. I do it a little less deliberately as an adult.)

“When I’m in a foreign country, I pay more attention to the norm than the exception.” (Yes! I love going to foreign supermarkets and riding public transportation in other countries. Here, not so much.)

“In foreign countries the street is an exhibition.”

“If I don’t like what I see I close my eyes, but if what I hear bothers me, I am unable to close my ears.” (Constant commuting lament.)

I probably could have annotated half the small book, but those jumped out at me. Oddly, while I love books like these, I also enjoy mysteries set in other countries. I only care in passing about the crime; it’s the foreign-country details that are described because it’s a mystery that I love.

I have a strange list of favorite books, clearly.

Gorgeous Sunday (Sorry, rest-of-America)

While most of the country is freezing and/or buried under snow, today was a lovely day in the Bay Area. A friend and I ventured to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco for the Anders Zorn exhibit, with a small Matisse show from the SFMOMA thrown in as a surprise.

After the Legion, we went to Baker Beach for a little while to enjoy the view and sunshine. It was the sort of day that I could have actually sunbathed, were I the sunbathing (and not the burning-just-thinking-of-the-sun) sort. Have some pictures! (Click to embiggen. They look a little washed-out in their smaller forms.)

The entrance to the Legion of Honor. A little taste of France for me.

The entrance to the Legion of Honor. A little taste of France for me.

Archway into the entrance courtyard at the Legion.

Archway into the entrance courtyard at the Legion.

Outside the courtyard, to the right.

Outside the courtyard, to the right.

Moving a bit to the left, you can see all the way over the City to the East Bay.

Moving a bit to the left, you can see all the way over the City to the East Bay.

To the left, the other lawn and the entrance to the Bay.

To the left, the other lawn and the entrance to the Bay.

Baker Beach, looking oceanward.

Baker Beach, looking oceanward.

Surf and frolicking people at the beach.

Surf and frolicking people at the beach.

The money shot.

The money shot.

Got home rather early, and spent the rest of the day knitting and reading. Back to work tomorrow… a full, holiday-less week that is going to be busy and not fun and all that, but hopefully I can whip up another weekend like this soon.

This Right Here

Is why it breaks my heart I can’t live in Europe.

I feel about this roughly the same way an infertile couple who desperately wants children feels when they see pregnant women. Yes, I know there are Americans who live in Europe, and even Americans who live in Europe who aren’t married to Europeans. But I never managed to find a way to do it, and now I’m a homeowner with a secure job here in the US and my only hope is retiring there, since I won’t need to work by then.

And my current life is not being made to seem more attractive by the news in the following post.


Getting Back into the Kitchen

Now that the weather is cooling down, I have much more energy and enthusiasm. Witness:


Small lemon cake with vanilla frosting.

Small lemon cake with vanilla frosting.

I made this for a friend who came over for birthday tea. It’s a blitztorte from The Joy of Cooking, with double lemon. The cake didn’t come away from the pan perfectly, so I tried to do a crumb coat before the proper icing, but it still was kind of rustic. Quite good though.

I have a friend who clips the cats’ claws and I feed him. This was what he got last week:

Tartine ingredients.

Tartine ingredients.

Please also note homemade garlic rosemary croutons in the Ziploc to the back left.

Tartines, assembled.

Tartines, assembled.

Lightly toasted French bread with 1.) European-style butter topped with sea salt and radishes (which I ate compulsively for days afterward — sooo good!) and 2.) Greek yogurt (standing in for the fromage frais I didn’t feel like going to Whole Foods for), cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbes de Provence.

Pretty pretty macarons.

Pretty pretty macarons.

I got two of seven different kind of macarons from Chantal Guillon. Bought them from a guy from Paris. I actually walked back to work smiling.

Tonight I will confess I am giving into a whim and having fish sticks for dinner. So gourmet, non? But it’s comfort food. This was mortgage payday last week so my cupboard is a bit barer than it would normally be. But I have plans for fall and winter cooking. I love this time of year.

Parisian Transit Geekery

Recently I was asked to describe a place where I feel content, happy, peaceful. Being the weirdo that I am, I said:

Riding Line 2 of the Paris metro from the terminus at Nation. I have often made this journey when I am in Paris and want to sit down in the A/C, daydream, and people-watch. I go to the terminus so I can get one of the single seats on a waiting empty train. I love the hot-metal-and-good-perfume scent of the metro; I love the deep warning sound for the closing doors; I love the open windows on non-air-conditioned trains. I sit and enjoy a flood of relief up from my feet; my muscles relax and my always-overheated self cools down. The rocking of the train and the rumbling tranquilizes me. (I almost fell asleep once — that never happens in public.) Pulling into each station I have a feeling of happiness and excitement as each name is announced over the PA.  The eastern stations on Line 2, particularly, are fraught with history and there is always the sense that adventure could await outside. (Yes, I know some of Line 2’s neighborhoods aren’t the best; I stayed in one. It was fine.) Then the sound goes, the doors close, and the train rumbles off into the dark tunnel, while I settle back in my seat, comfortable and content, joyful to be back in Paris and happily speeding under its streets.

This is perhaps not what the person who asked was quite expecting.

Rush hour, line 2, September 28, 2013

Rush hour, line 2, September 28, 2012

Taken from my single seat on the left, across from a girl about ten years old, who solemnly pulled out a book and read.

Must. Get. Back. To. Paris. Next. Year.

ETA: “I have often… when I’m in Paris” probably sounds snotty, and/or like I’m there every season or something. I wish. But although I have not been there that often, I have done this ride more than once on the last two trips. It’s a great way to chill out for awhile, literally and figuratively, and all for one metro ticket. Also — and this not just on Line 2 — it’s cool to hear how complicated station names are pronounced, like my very favorite, Barbès-Rochechouart.