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Another Day Another Dollar

Mood: Clickety-Clackety
Drinking: Water

With all the recent excitement involving the wee new nephew, I’ve neglected to mention the trip to Portland.

In the calm before the holiday/baby storm, Boy and I packed the LeeLoo and a few choice bags into a rental car and hit the road northward to rainier climes.

Boy’s parents lived in Oregon before returning to California a few years ago, so I’ve been to the Pacific Northwest before, just not for long. Boy’s sister now lives there with her husband, a Greek Orthodox priest, and their two children. She’s been there for two years, at least, and our visit was long overdue.

Not to mention our adorable friend C who, as many northern Californians seem to do, recently made the Portland move. I also have another Portland friend who I hadn’t seen in 8 years.

And then there was LeeLoo’s Internets Boyfriend and his fine ladies. (They are so fine, they deserve a post of their own, so I’ll save the dog tale for later, if that’s ok with you…)

So. Obviously. Lots of reasons to visit Portland.

I’m not sure what I expected. Rain, yes, you always expect the rain up there. Big green trees, yes, that too. But so many San Franciscans seem to migrate northward with stories of more affordable housing and a city that is just as wonderful as our foggy town.

So I was expecting, I don’t know, some sort of San Francisco-like mecca. Rain-weathered Victorians and fog-shrouded hills. A bit of mist and magic, perhaps.

And while I found Portland and its people to be perfectly pleasant, if a bit too cold (the weather, not the people), I don’t think I’ll be giving up my San Francisco residency in exchange for a cheaper mortgage anytime soon.

The magic just wasn’t there for me, not like it is here. That’s the biggest reason why not. It was a bit too crunchy for me, as well. (Somehow there seem to actually be more hippies in Portland than San Francisco.) Also, San Francisco summers are about as cold as I like it. Chill the air below 40 and add a few bucketloads of rain and I’m staying far away.

Speaking of the rain, I totally showed my tourist stripes whilst knocking about downtown Portland with Boy and Sister-in-Law. We stepped onto the street and I popped open my plaid umbrella to keep the rain off my head and, oh look! I’m the only one standing in the rain with an umbrella.

In San Francisco, you can tell the tourists by their summertime shorts. In Portland, you pick them out by their umbrellas.

The one thing that makes me blink and think twice, though? Powell’s Books. It’s every bit as magical as you’ve heard. Which is saying something. Because you know those certain places that get you all worked into a lather — you hear so much and you’ve waited so long and you’re so excited to finally see it for yourself and then you get there and it’s oh, so disappointing.

Not Powell’s.

There is nothing there to disappoint. A city block full of lovely books. All easily shelved and cleverly organized. The book jockeys are sweet and helpful. And the lady in the science fiction room needed no explanation as to who Sergei Lukyanenko was.

And even better than the two heaping bags of books Boy and I walked out of there with? Powell’s bought a few of my books!

Oh yes, you can now find The Secrets of Falling at Powell’s Books. At Burnside. In the Blue Room. Small Press section. Poetry shelf. Go down to the W’s and look, there I am.

Lo, who’s still reading her way through those two bags full.


Mood: Sweet
Drinking: Chai

There is a new person in the world. Small and innocent. His miniature feet are like velvet. His head smells of meadows and milk.

I am utterly in love.

My sister is a miracle worker, bringing such a perfect wee thing into being. I am so proud. So proud of her, and so in awe.

“You’re a woman now,” I said to her in the labor room. And we both laughed. But I was serious.

She has gone beyond. Someday, perhaps, I will follow. But until then, I’ll stand here in wonder that such a thing is possible. Nothing, and then life. Emptiness, and then a perfect small person.

It’s shaping up to be a wonderful Christmas.

Over the last few days, with the phone call that it was happening, it was happening Right Now! And then the trip to the hospital, the chaos of it all culminating in the arrival of new flesh and blood… It’s such an overwhelming experience. Over the last few days I kept thinking of a poem that I discovered in a poetry workshop earlier this year.

All I could remember was that it was written from the perspective of a newly born baby, and that I was deeply moved the first time I read it.

So I dug through my piles of poetry and found it there among the heap. It’s called “First Hour”, by American poet Sharon Olds, from her book The Unswept Room (2002)…

That hour, I was most myself. I had shrugged
my mother slowly off, I lay there
taking my first breaths, as if
the whir of the room was blowing me
like a bubble. All I had to do
was go out along the line of my gaze and back,
out and back, on gravity’s silk, the
pressure of the air a caress, smelling on my
self her creamy blood. The air
was softly touching my skin and tongue,
entering me and drawing forth the little
sighs I did not know as mine.
I was not afraid. I lay in the quiet
and looked, and did the wordless thought,
my mind getting its oxygen
direct, the rich mix by mouth.
I hated no-one. I gazed and gazed,
and everything was interesting, I was
free, not yet in love, I did not
belong to anyone, I had drunk
no milk yet, no-one had
my heart. I was not very human. I did not
know there was anyone else. I lay
like a god, for an hour, then they came for me,
and took me to my mother.

-Lo, who is celebrating the season of miracles.

Mistletoe and Miscellany

poinsettaMood: List-Checking-Off-ish
Drinking: Daily Dose of Water

No matter how much you plan, how many vows you make, cookies you bake, lights you string, fa la la… No matter what, this season always gets to you with its busy-ness. With its sometimes sincere but often forced cheerfulness. Its overwhelming red and greenness. Its sugar overdoses and last minute gift panic.

I’m not panicking, though. I’m roadtripping.

Boy and I are packing the LeeLoo up and driving north to Portland to visit his sister, a few friends, and LeeLoo’s Internet Boyfriend, Henry D. Monster.

LeeLoo’s excited only because she saw some tasty treats and one of her babies go into a duffle bag, so she knows she’s going along. She has no idea what’s in store for her. She and the Monster have not yet met in real life, but now that they’re taking their relationship offline (i.e. out of me and Henry’s mom’s myspace photo exchanges and fake dog-messages and into the dogs’ actual lives), well, much cuteness and butt-sniffing shall be had! There will be photos. Count on it.

I’ve got other plans to avoid holiday panic — I’m boycotting the company Secret Santa thingie, for one.

Even better, my sister’s baby is due between Christmas and New Year’s, and even though he hasn’t even taken his first breath, he’s already got more presents than Boy does. I can’t stop buying adorable wee t-shirts that say stuff like “I do my own stunts.”

My parents’ plane touches down in CA soon, and since holidays with the entire Witmer family don’t happen often anymore, it’s quite exciting to think about the full house and long chats by the fire that we’ll soon be having. Actually, nervous energy getting spread around the maternity ward waiting room is probably more like it.

And in the midst of all the holidays and hullaballoo, I’ve still got some training to do. I’m up to 9 miles now, and my half marathon date creeps steadily closer. I’m still fundraising for Team in Training/The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. You’ve got another week or so to sponsor me, if you want.

There are also a few poetry readings in the works for early next year. Dates to be determined. I’ll let you know when I know.

-Lo, who misses sword-sized icicles.

Smells Like Children

kids2Mood: Measured
Drinking: Diet Coke in a Can

Last weekend, Boy and I played host to some old friends and their two little rugrats. (It’s an affectionate term, Internet!)

I guess the LeeLoo should get some credit for playing host, too. She was so very polite whilst being covered in shredded bits of Kleenex by small shrieking tots.

I think the game was “TeePee the Dog with the Smallest Bits of Tissue Possible While Giggling Hysterically at Extremely High-Pitched Levels.” She did very well, just laying there and taking it like a champ. But then she does love to lick on baby toes, so I guess the trade-off was more than adequate for her.

We had lots of fun with homemade pizza a walk to the park and small bowls of messy gelato for all. I even dug out a dusty box of coloring books and crayons from the depths of the garage. One of our small guests has a great liking for drawing dinosaurs. He also will only eat crackers and grapes.

The habits of childhood are mystifying to me. I remember having a strong aversion to liver and onions (which has followed me into adulthood), but I don’t remember much about my own toddler-sized likes and dislikes.

After all the sippy cups and ziploc baggies of crackers were stowed away and our guests had tucked themselves back into their minivan and headed east again, Boy looked at me in the blessed silence and said,
“You know, if we have some of our own, they’re not going to go away at the end of the day.”

I flopped down on the couch next to the dog and picked a bit of half-chewed tissue from her ear.
“Yeah,” I sighed.
“I know.”

It’s a topic that’s been beaten to death recently, what with another approaching birthday heralding another year in the Unused Uterus Club, as well as the way one of my very best friend’s little belly is starting to pooch out in an adorably pregnant way.

Boy’s mom wants to know, my Grandma wants to know, people I don’t even know at all want to know, “WHEN ARE YOU GUYS GOING TO START A FAMILY?”

There are so many things I want to say to that question, not the least of which is,
“None of your business!”
And also, “We already ARE a family.”
And then, “I really haven’t the faintest idea.”

At first, there were so many things we wanted to do. And we’ve done a lot of them in the last seven years. But the thing I’m beginning to realize is that you never, ever, finish your To Do List.

Visit one exotic land and you’ll discover six more that you just have to see. Finish one book and you’ll want to write two more. Settle into a little house and you’ll soon need a bigger one. The list will just go on and on, forever.

Meanwhile, in the background, behind all the hustle and everyday bustle, a clock will wind up and start ticking, at first so softly that you can’t even hear it. But the years start to spin by faster and faster and pretty soon the goddamn ticking sound is all that you can hear.

And by “you”, I mean me. Because I’m standing up here with my head cocked to the left like Captain Hook on watch for the crocodile, but Boy can’t hear a thing.

I guess if you’re lacking in ovarian capacity, a biological clock is beside the point.

So there I was on a bright Sunday afternoon, slow roasting in the sun at a playground, feeling like a barren intruder among all those self-confident breeders, a colorless island amidst a river of primary colors, watching the roommate of my bar-hopping days wrangle her children like a seasoned veteran, like a real mommy, like a woman.

And the clock was beating in time to my banging pulse.

Suddenly I was afraid.

They say you’re never really ready for it. I believe it. If I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that you’re never really ready for anything. Not even when you’ve read all the books and done all your homework. You’re never prepared for the real thing. You’ve just gotta jump in and kick and splash and cough and swim.

One of these days, one of these days
I’m jumping in.

Until then, I’ll just let my li’l sister tell me how deep and cold the water is…

-Lo, who wants to know if she’s Auntie to a boy or a girl. What are you, Peanut?!


Mood: Threadbare
Drinking: Watered-down tea


It’s gone
before she can close her fingers
around it.

Gone like a flash
like a fish, slippery
and silver. Catch
and release is
supposed to be intentional

she looks surprised

“What are you looking for?”
(The keys are in her left
front pocket.)
She replies with a
triumphant jingle, her
eyes sparking alight.

Three seconds later
the spark goes out and
she’s looking again.

This time I tell her where they are.

She says, “How did you know
that’s what I was looking for?”

I tell her I’m psychic, but
can’t watch her laugh.

The joke’s not funny
when the punchline
is buckled into the passenger’s
seat. The joke’s not
funny when it’s been repeated
17 times in 7 miles. The
joke’s not funny.

Three weeks later
on the telephone
she tells me my
dead grandfather
is waving to all the
smokers outside her
hospital window.

“I’ll be fine, though.”
Pause. Wheeze.
“I don’t smoke
as much as I
used to.”
(Not a single one since
I was 12.)
“Only one or two
a day, now.”

I want to ask
what day it is, exactly.
But days don’t really matter
when you’re stuck
in the wrong decade.

It’s nicer there, anyway.
She’s got cigarettes and Ernie
inside her plastic castle. Please
don’t tap on the glass.

Three seconds later
she remembers herself.

“When you’re a bully
all your life, you get
what you deserve. I
get what I deserve.”
She says it
without pity.
I pretend I didn’t hear her.

The truth is easy to forget.

Wait just one more second
and it’s gone.

-Lo, who is beginning to believe that “growing old gracefully” is a crock.



Mood: Quiet
Drinking: Done

Equinox: Vernal

Today a robin
at the edge of the lawn

with stick figure legs
and telltale red breast.
So cockeyed and careful
while trilling the cheerily carol.

The world seems determined
to get back on track
to go on
without him.

The seasons arrive
on schedule.

Hence the bird
with attendant worm
and sudden violet,

all the usual signs of spring
that weren’t there
just yesterday.

Soon the grass
will need cutting.
The earth will
want seeds.
And she can’t move
like she used to.

There was no snow
the day he didn’t wake up.

there were no robins
either. Now the ache
wakes with the sun.

And any minute
she expects him to
walk in the door.

But the long days
bring only birds.

(For Ruth. And Vernon.)

-Lo, who wishes he’d walk in the door, too, if that would make her happy.


Mood: Disturbed
Drinking: Delinquent

dead men tell no tales
the living won’t shut up.

we eulogize with lies.
we fantasize about a happier ending.
about what could have been
if life were lived on film
managed by disney
scripted by ephron
and sponsored by coca-cola.

even as the ashes fly
we cannot speak the truth so
we fall back on fabrications.
history is so easily revised
when we no longer stare death
in the fading blue eyes.

we memorialize a different man
who might have been
but never was.
under the supervision
of this sacred steeple,
we fill in the blanks
we mad lib bullshit.

St. Peter’s unnamed children
Angel wing autopsy saw
Myocardial infarction of the Pearly Gates

the rules of revision require
politeness and pretty words.
defects are pastorally photoshopped.
all evidence of human-ness
is swept into the skeleton closet
to join the cigarettes and heart attacks.

don’t speak ill of the dead
within earshot of the second wife
she’ll send you on your way
with “journeying mercies” and
a backstabbing knife.
(God love ‘em)

we inter all his sins with
what’s left of his bones.
bronze all the stars, leave no grave
undisturbed in our
quest to manufacture
peaceful rest.

all saints are dead.
all dead are saints.
the living tell no tales
of imperfect truth.

-Lo, who doesn’t want a whitewashed eulogy.

Back Where I Belong

ggbridgeMood: Tired
Drinking: Tea

Driving along Illinois freeways lined with crumbling grey piles of unwanted snow, I remembered all over again why I don’t live there anymore.

When my plane touched town on California concrete Wednesday night, I felt profound relief. It’s not that Illinois (or Ill-annoys, as my friend Jesse calls it) is a bad place. It’s not. Some of my best memories were made there, and I had a great time on this trip re-visiting my old haunts in Chicago with my friend C. (I was happy to see that Alien and Predator still live at The Alley, and that Medusa’s Circle still has the best collection of lightning bolt necklaces.)

Illinois used to be home. But I don’t belong there anymore.

Being back for my grandfather’s memorial service brought up more memories than usual. Maybe it was seeing all those estranged relatives — cousins I haven’t seen for nearly a decade, who now have children I’ve never met before, and great-aunts with blue hair and unwelcome advice.

Maybe it was because my mom, dad, and I spent countless hours digging through boxes and boxes of old photographs — some of my immediate family and lots of my grandpa. Photos I’ve never seen before, like the blurry black and white of my grandpa holding my dad when he was just a baby.

Maybe it was hanging out with my friend A from high school and her two children, the eldest of whom is nearly a woman herself now.

Maybe it was just driving down all those familiar roads, past places that used to define the boundaries of my world, and seeing now how small they are, and how colorless.

Maybe it was everything combined.

All I know is that there is a girl I used to be, and she exists now only in pictures and memories and whispers in the back of my mind. And although it’s always hard to leave my family and friends behind, to know that it might be a very long time before I see them again, the girl I am now belongs in San Francisco.

You can’t deny your heart its home.

-Lo, who was also reminded there is nothing to miss about the snow, the cold, and the flat grey sky.

Beanhead’s Birthday

Mood: Sleepy-eyed
Drinking: Morning teajobday

When I found out, at age 4, that my mom was going to magically pop out a brand new little sister, I begged my parents to name her Tracy.

Much to my disappointment, they knew better than to take the advice of a punk-ass toddler, and named her Johanna instead.

One of my earliest memories is of my baby sister laying on the floor in her white cloth diapers with the big yellow safety pins while I played drums on her naked round belly.

Four years doesn’t seem like a huge age difference now, but when we were kids, it meant that we lived worlds apart. She was getting into stuff (paper dolls, bicycles, sandboxes) when I was outgrowing them.

She always wanted to tag along, and I always wanted to leave her behind. I don’t even know how many times my friend Jason (who was only 2 years younger than I) and I would hop on our two-wheeled bikes and pedal furiously down the lane, while she climbed onto her orange tricycle and tried to keep up, yelling “Guys! Wait for me.”

Even as a tiny thing, she was always an old soul, always worried about everybody else, always standing at the window waiting for mom to arrive home safely, always bossing me around when I least expected it.

But when it came to make-believe, I was the boss. During every stuffed animal army invasion, her teddy bears were always on the losing side. When we played dress up in mom’s clothes, I got to wear the green bikini top stuffed with Kleenex, not Jo. I took our Star Wars reenactments quite seriously. I was always Princess Leia, of course, and the Otto boys were always Luke and Han, and Jo was shorter than all of us (not wookie-sized) so that meant she had to be R2D2. And she wasn’t allowed to talk while in character – she had to beep, just like R2 did.

When I was 12, my horse-owning dream came true, in the form of a donkey named Jackie, which I purchased from a distant cousin for $25. After he bucked me off and broke my arm, my dad decided that both of us girls needed to take riding lessons. When I first walked into the stable at Copper Bit Ranch and saw all those glorious 16-hand horses, I knew that I was going to be a star. I was going to be riding a sleek black steed over 3-foot fences in no time.

Yeah. It didn’t actually work out quite like that.

Since I was the only one in the family with a horse-type-creature (come on, a donkey is decidedly NOT a horse), my sister got to ride one of the stable ponies – an adorable little brown mare named Ginger. I, on the other hand, I had to ride Jackie. The donkey. With the stiff western saddle my dad picked up at a farm sale.

So while Johanna trotted prettily around the arena, touching the dressage letters on the wall with ease and grace, Jackie and I lumbered along, veering wildly to the right or the left as I tried in vain to make a donkey actually do what he was told. The riding lessons usually ended up with my sister trotting merrily past me, all the onlookers “awww-ing”, while Jackie leaned his full weight against my left leg and smashed me into the wall. It was highly amusing to everyone but me.

Johanna and I didn’t really become friends until I was in college and she was in high school. It happened when she drove up to visit me one weekend. I don’t remember the details of what we did. I’m sure we rented videos and ate beer nuggets (a college-town delicacy). But all I know for sure is that when I watched her little red truck pull away that Sunday afternoon, I realized that I had made a friend.

That was just the first of many sister weekends. They’ve become a special tradition for both of us, although now we usually show up at each other’s door with a dog in tow (and sometimes a husband).

Today is my sister’s birthday. And it’s a big one this year. Not so much in numbers, because she’s still younger than me (and I’m not old!). But it’s a big one because more than ever this year, I realize what kind of woman I have for a sister.

She’s gorgeous, of course, although she’d never admit it. (And she’s probably blushing furiously right now, reading this.) She’s one of the few people who can get me to laugh, even on the worst of days. She’s much nicer than I am. She is a fiercely loyal friend and an incredibly gifted teacher. She kicks my ass in an argument, hands down. She plays the piano beautifully with those long and slender fingers, and has this whole crafty thing going on that’s really quite impressive. She’s all the things you want in a best friend – she’s smart and funny and witty and warm. She can come up with some astonishing insults, too. In fact, we’ve taken to answering each other’s phone calls with insults. I think the latest one is “What do you want, you bitch-faced whore?!” Every time I see her name flash on my incoming call list, I start smiling before I even answer the phone.

She’s one of the bravest people I know. Right after she got engaged, her fiancé was notified that he was getting shipped out to Iraq. They had a wedding all planned, and she had a gorgeous white dress waiting in my closet, but it was all going to be two months too late. So I got a phone call on a Tuesday morning, “J and I are getting married tomorrow. Can you be here?”

There were 10 people at her wedding – the only ones who could make it on such short notice. Not even my parents could be there, so Boy walked her down the aisle. And she spent the first 18 months of her married life alone, in a new apartment, in a new city, with her new husband on the other side of the earth, staring down death in the desert every day. It was hard for her. I saw it. But she didn’t complain. She had her bad days, yes, but she was braver than I ever could have been. She sucked it up and stuck it out and I have never been more proud.

So today, Jo, on your birthday, here’s what I wish for you:
A kind mirror. Pancakes. A birthday kiss from J. A high-five from McKinna. Sun and falling stars. Lists of baby names. Dreams so close, you can touch them. A sudden onset of inspiration. New sheet music. A pedicure. Traffic-free highways. Girlfriend phone calls. A tall glass of wine. An optimistic sky. Fuzzy slippers. A good book. The all-pervading calm that comes with knowing you are loved, you are wanted, you are appreciated, and you are exactly where you’re supposed to be.

Happy XXth, Beanhead!

-Lo, who could always use more sister days.

Home on the Farm

thefarmMood: Rainy day delinquent
Drinking: Mint & honey tea

As long as there’s no great March snowstorm to keep me earthbound, I’ll be picking up my bags at O’Hare in a couple of days and pointing my rental car west, toward my parents’ farm.

My grandfather passed away several weeks ago, and the relatives-in-charge opted to postpone the memorial service until “spring”. I don’t know exactly why they consider Illinois’ version of March to be spring, since anyone who’s spent a winter or two there knows better. But the date has been set. So I, along with several other long-lost relatives from various states betwixt here and there will be traveling through the snow this week to pay our respects.

I’m always happy to return to the small town where I grew up. (As long as it’s for a visit and not for good.) I like to drive the roads that I used to know so well, the roads that used to make me feel like such a big fish, and see what’s changed since I last passed that way. Palmyra Road always has a few surprises. For one thing, it’s not even called Palmyra Road anymore. I think they changed the name to Prairieville Road a couple of visits back.

When I was a tiny thing, it used to be called Rural Route 1. Then, for the duration of my childhood and teen years, it was Palymra Road. Home of “Son Shine Acres”, which is where I lived from age 2 to 21, give or take a few months here and there when I was at college or pretending to live in more exotic locales like Indiana.

My parents owned a big grey farmhouse and 1.5 acres of land which housed a huge garden, a dog kennel, a chicken coop, a horse barn, and my dad’s oversized garage. For most of my childhood, we also rented the 10 or so acres of land across the driveway, which included a silo, barn, and several large outbuildings, as well as a pond, a giant cottonwood tree, and a couple of acres of rolling green hills.

I learned to ride a horse there (and broke my arm getting bucked off a donkey there). I spent countless hours carrying 5-gallon buckets of water from the well up by our house all the way down to the big red barn, which didn’t have any running water for a long time. In the winter, when the pails of water would slosh down my legs and freeze inside my boots, that path from house to barn seemed 5 miles long.

The picture above is the view from our kitchen window out over the yard, down the lane, ending at the big red barn. My dad took this photo on a winter day when I was only 4 or 5. For most of my formative years, this view comprised the largest part of my world.

My parents don’t live at 497 Palmyra Road anymore. They sold the place and moved on when my sister was in college. My bedroom with the dusky blue horseshoe wallpaper belongs to someone else now.

But every time I’m back in town, I drive the old blacktop, turning right off Route 2 by the Shell gas station, up Lord’s Hill (which seems so small now compared with San Francisco inclines), past Vitale’s Holstein farm, and then slowing down for a look as I drive past the scene of my first bike ride, first snowman, first puppy, first costume party, first horse, first skinned knee, first kiss, first driving lesson, first mulberry, first falling star, first everything that makes a childhood a good one.

It doesn’t look like much anymore. Some of the trees in our huge front yard are missing now. The Son Shine Acres sign is gone. There are no more beagles in the backyard. And who knows what ever happened to my favorite bike, the one with the banana seat and the handlebar streamers.

But it’s still a magical place to me.

So I’ll be seeing you soon, old homestead. And you, too, Sterling Girl(s)! Leave a light on for me. I’m coming home.

-Lo, who still knows where Erwin the bird is buried out in the apple orchard.