Stories from the Road: Chasing Barges and Otherness


For a brief respite between drab winter and frenzied garden preparations, my family and I headed up to the North Shore on Lake Superior. We visited the local high points: Split Rock Lighthouse, Glensheen Mansion, an aquarium, a maritime museum. It was relaxing and enjoyable when we were together. Alone, I found moments to do what I do best. I recognized my Otherness.

It’s hard not to feel apart and isolated these days. My disconnect from the political those who scramble to represent us, overpower us, quiet us, is becoming palpable. I am scared of many of my fellow voters. I don’t understand your placards or your mindless hooting. These politicians are not your friends. They want power. Stop throwing them parties.

Culturally, all the latest stars look like kids. The celebrities I grew up with are beginning to die, one by one. I have a low tolerance for television shows or commercials these days. It all seems like extraneous noise. Most nights on vacation, I’m down in the lobby reading while my family unwinds to reality TV involving children crying during junior chef competitions or grown men finding out what happens when they crush things.

Hidden behind a column, I sat in a comfortable chair looking out onto the lake. To the right and back of me, a group of young lawyers discussed witness prep for an upcoming trial. Gaiman lost me at that point and the words of my book blurred as I listened with fascination. Everything becomes material. Part of me feels a predatory thrill. To observe without being observed. I am voyeur.

canstockphoto2064089I wake up at 4am every morning, vacation or not. Sometimes I lie there, listening to the soft snuffling of my family. We paid for a view on the lake. I bundled up and sat on the balcony, listening to the waves crash on the shore. When the sun came up, I saw a large ship on the horizon. It was coming towards the aerial lift bridge. I dashed out of the room, down several flights of stairs and out onto the lake boardwalk, walking quickly towards the monolithic barge. It slid into the harbor and out of sight. And then I was alone, feeling slightly foolish.

Otherness came over me. It happens to me more and more frequently, as I get older and slip out of synch with the rushing, constantly updating world. I’m becoming invisible. My otherness is no longer quirky or weird or even interesting. It’s unseen.

canstockphoto0033418Sitting on a bench, I watched the ring-billed gulls doing their acrobatic swoops. A cold wind blew off the lake. Sporadic joggers passed by. I remembered other park benches and rocks and stone walls where my legs dangled. Listening to the bark of sea lions on Monterey Bay, drinking beer on a grassy hill at the Festung Marienberg, sitting on a Mediterranean beach as fishermen gathered up lines and nets, in a park next to a group of WWI German soldiers memorialized in stone, carrying a fallen comrade.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my head, escaping less than edifying circumstances. I found secret places to be alone – in the back corner of a library, in a tree, on a rock by the lake. I became a watcher. Distance became necessary armor against assaults on hypersensitivity. It was a way to be safe. To heal quickly from the bruising nature of life.

Whether I was already a writer or laying fertile ground for becoming one, I think this is a thing that happens. While life is happening all around me, sentences are being formed, dulling the intensity of the moment. A story emerges. What ifs override what is. Curiosity drives an overwhelming need to chase barges, to see what happens next, to find oneself in the middle of a deserted boardwalk, feeling all at once foolish and delighted.


Outliers: Contradictions Us All

canstockphoto13625435It’s a strange world in which we all strive so hard to be unique and special and identifiable, but quickly revert to the thems and theys when describing entire groups of other humans. If pushed on our own deeply-held stereotypes, we’d be quick to crumble to the idea of exceptions to every rule – that there are Republicans with compassion and Democrats with morals. That women can be tough, but kind and men tender, but powerful. That people without children can lead fulfilling lives and that large families can be healthy and functional. That someone can dance to Beyoncé, but still adore a good translation of Candide.

Many of us like to believe that we’re so completely different from other humans that we’re outliers. The term outlier can be statistically specific, but in this context, it is more about the mental distance felt between you and everyone else. This is where it gets curious. Talk to any single human being on this planet long enough and you will learn some eccentric proclivity, some lint-collecting hobby, or that they suffered an incredible trauma or god forbid, none at all, or mostly that they feel like they don’t fit in with the mainstream.

Who is the mainstream? Who represents this majority? Is it the media? Is it the mass of consumers that purchase certain products or gobble up celebrity news like popcorn? On an individual basis, we all seem just a little strange. Yet we can’t all be outliers, since it would defy the actual meaning of the word.

I think it is tough to feel like an outlier when you don’t have any recognizable skills. I’m not a genius. I have no affinity for intensive study of a single subject. I don’t have much in the way of material goods or a stunning appearance. It’s easy to justify being odd when you have a talent, or a lot of money or something socially quantifiable and admirable. Without those things, you’re just a weirdo.

I am a weirdo when it comes to the mainstream culture. I usually see movies that are 10 years or older, when people finally shut up about them – but I know the soundtracks. I never read books recommended by Oprah. I don’t pay attention to fashion. I don’t worry about my appearance (oh yeah, you can tell). I like punching more than dancing, mashed potatoes more than chocolate, and I love it when I have to order a book through inter-library loan because nobody the hell else is interested in it.

I can sing most of the lyrics by the Kingston Trio and I don’t watch commercial television. I have a tattoo that I got when I was sober and middle-aged. I think most subjects are interesting, but only if I discover them. If there’s a buzz about something, I won’t take a second look. I’m a purposeful contrarian. My daughter is much the same. Nature or nurture?

As a parent and wife and PTO mom living in suburbia, I look like a stereotype, except that those stereotypes don’t exist except as a superficial way for us to judge and categorize each other. The real commonalities between humans are beneath the outer trappings. It’s those fleeting moments of clarity that remind us we’re all in the same boat, flailing about trying to connect with other humans so that we don’t feel so alone or afraid. It’s the bare bones truth beneath it all. Everything else is just a different color of paint.

There is plenty of advice about cultivating compassion for oneself and ostensibly for others. But maybe it is better to start slow and cultivate curiosity about each other first. Humans are interesting, but we are not omniscient. Nothing can or should be assumed about someone’s intelligence or kindness or intent or background. We can ask questions. We can start a conversation. We can stop baring our teeth at the first hint of disagreement. We can stare wide-eyed, with mindful ears and generous hearts. And maybe we can stop the pretense that we’re not connected, on this blue-green island of misfit humans.

This post was inspired by the post Meanwhile… by Wyrd Smythe at Logos con carne . He had several poignant observations about aging, his sense of being an outlier and floundering about in the blogging world. It reminded me of a message that needs to be said out loud. 


Turkey Wrangling and Other Curiosities

On the way to the grocery store last week, a police van stopped in front of me at a busy intersection and put on its lights. I reflexively wondered what I had done. The officer got out and walked back towards my car. I panicked – did I put my current registration in the glove box? He stopped and with a comical, defeated expression on his face, gestured for me to go around his vehicle.

I passed by slowly, wondering what was going on. On the other side of the officer’s van, a wild turkey came running out. In almost cartoonish animation, the ungainly, but speedy bird lurched this way and that in traffic, with the officer in close pursuit. The chase was on. And that was how his day started.

canstockphoto6249825I once started my day at 5am, making donuts at a grocery store, wearing a horrific name tag that said, “I’m new, but I’m exceptional!” I was new, but the thought that this was me being exceptional depressed the hell out of me. Mostly I pulled frozen crullers and bear claws out of the freezer to defrost. I was also charged with mixing batter, feeding it like toothpaste into a doughnut press, and dropping the heart attack bombs into the fryer.

Starting out with paper routes and babysitting, I’ve had one job or another since I was 10 years old. Babysitting was where I got my first exposure to porn. After the little wretches were put to bed for the 400th time, I was looking through videos for something to watch and there were magazines. I was 11 years old and had no idea people did things like that with animals. I didn’t tell anybody, but I never babysat for the Creepensteins again. They had farm animals.

One of the toughest jobs I had was working as a security guard (sometimes a natural progression from the military) at a plant that made washers and dryers. It was a tough job, because I worked the graveyard shift (11pm-7am). This allowed me to attend college during the day. Apparently I didn’t need much sleep then. To save money, the company would use the non-union security guards to run and monitor their waste water treatment department. I spent the night watching chrome decanting monitors and opening barrels of treatment chemicals that burned holes in the front of my t-shirts. Those were the days of safety first third or fourth.

Over the last couple of decades, I’ve worked in nicer places – a library, a hospital, office cubes, eventually an office of my own. It’s a different kind of work from loading boxes on a trailer or digging trenches at a park reserve. I find office work to be more challenging than any other kind of work, as I am not adept at being in close contact with humans all day long. And you can spend a whole day being busy and get absolutely nothing of concrete worth done.

Working from home is a blessing and a curse. My human interaction is sometimes so limited that I frighten the UPS man with my perky greeting that says “I haven’t talked to another human today. Be my friend”. Now they’re like pranksters, they ring the door bell and run, in the hopes the crazy lady in yoga pants won’t try and talk to them.

I used to regard my consumer interactions as a nuisance, wishing cashiers and hair cutters and post office workers wouldn’t try to strike up a conversation with me. I was busy, dammit. Let’s get a move on. Now that my human interactions are not so forced, I find it enjoyable to do more than smile and be polite. I am becoming the nosy old lady who wants to know if you and Bob over at the car wash are related, since you both have the same shaped eyes. I am becoming Miss Marple.

As a writer, I should understand and embrace this curiosity. I’ve always been introverted and reserved, but these days, I’m getting bolder and giving in to my unfiltered questions. It’s no longer enough to just observe. I asked the lady cutting my hair yesterday if her hands hurt after doing this all day. She told me how she got carpal tunnel when she was pregnant and how a coworker of hers has no feeling in her pinky fingers anymore.

Being curious about the experiences of others, putting yourself in their shoes, asking impulsive questions and most importantly, making connections – this is something I’m finally embracing. I’ve started to pay closer attention to the people who I encounter throughout the day. Whether they like it or not. Although a nosy Nellie might be a step up from a wild turkey.