Friday, July 3, 2015

What Might Have Been

Every year or two, we like to come back to San Francisco, walk our old streets, visit our old haunts, and dwell on that eternally unproductive question, "What if we'd stayed?" 

For the last week we've been on one such Road Not Taken Tour disguised as a vacation, this time staying in a house (thanks, AirBnB!) just a few blocks from where we used to live.

It's a sweet little place with plenty of room for us both. It's quiet, with a charming kitchen, huge back deck, a YARD, and a nice big office down below. Pretty much what we would've tried to get, many years ago, had we decided to stay in San Francisco and forget the whole Maine idea. I wanted to be in a place that would let us pretend, if just for a week, that we'd never left.

We've spent the last week sitting out on the deck and talking about how we'd do the garden differently. We've gotten produce at our old market. We've had friends over for dinner. We've redecorated (in our minds) the living room. We've even eavesdropped on the neighbors and decided which ones we'd like, which ones…not so much.

A few observations after a week in San Francisco:

1. This no-mosquitoes thing is pretty nice. Ditto the black flies and horse flies and ticks carrying Lyme disease.

2. Public transportation. So, so very nice. For $35 you can get a 7-day pass that gets you on all the buses and trolleys and cable cars. There is no better, more inexpensive way to see a city than by riding its buses.

3. The drought is no joke. I've never seen it so dry here. The owners of our house are gone for weeks but left all the cushions on the patio furniture, explaining that they didn't see any rain in the forecast. Friends in Oakland can't remember the last time it rained.

4. I don't know if it's gotten louder or if I've just gotten accustomed to the quiet, but this city roars. I sit in the sunshine on the back deck, trees and birds and flowers galore, surrounded by the Noe Valley millionaires, yet in the background, always, is a roar as if I were sitting next to the ventilation system for a large hospital.

5. From our deck I can peer into at least 100 windows. I have to work to tune out neighboring conversations. There is no privacy. I realize how very lucky we are that, from our Maine porch, we look out across miles of fields, water, and woods, all the way to distant mountains, with nothing but the occasional blinking cell tower to remind us that other people are around. What a rarity.

6. The Pride Parade. For me, the most moving moment came after the sea of Apple employees, after the Kaiser employees and AirBnB employees and the endless smiling waving politicians, when a single car appeared carrying James Obergefell. A cheer filled the street, people screamed, "Thank you!" And I cried.

7. The food. Good lord, by the number of restaurants in this town you'd think nobody has a kitchen? Don't get me wrong, it's good. But...if an alien arrived on this planet and visited San Francisco it would think all humans did was eat.

8. Those sinister silver and white tour buses that clog the roads, windows tinted so that nobody can see what's inside. They remind me of the time my brother and I passed a bus parked at the Emeryville Marina late one night, many years ago. We glanced up just in time to see a small light inside the bus illuminating a stripper, performing for the passengers.

After a few days it dawned on me, ahhh, these aren't porn-seeking tourists from China. These are the infamous Google buses I've heard so many people complain about. They circle like sharks, back and forth, back and forth. Had those buses been around when I was commuting, I would've embraced them, I would've cheered their arrival, for I really, really disliked my daily commute to San Mateo.

But now, there's something about them I find disturbing. It's as if a whole segment of the population has checked out of collective society and created their own little guarded, gated, tinted, air-conditioned, wifi-enabled community. The whole city has become a gated community. Only there's no gate, just money. To keep up, I'd have to pack myself into such a bus every day, only to be spat out again at sunset. Just imagining it fills me with an oppressive sadness. I don't want that life. Nor is it plausible that I could even achieve it. Time has passed, and a new generation boards the buses.

Which brings me to:

9. We used to tell ourselves that if this Maine thing didn't work out, we could always move back to San Francisco. But our week pretending to be Noe Valley millionaires has really made it clear that the city has slipped beyond our grasp. Entirely, and irreversibly. That imaginary safety net is gone. I know I broke up with San Francisco, but I didn't actually want it to marry someone else. But it has, she's gorgeous, and they're really, really happy together.

I wonder what will happen to the artists and poets and writers, the hippies and dreamers who arrived with $20 in their pockets and made this city so magical? Even Armistead Maupin has confessed he couldn't move back here if he wanted to. And what about the bus drivers and paramedics and school teachers, where, exactly, will they live?

The problem is real. I can't tell you the number of people who've said some version of, "If we lose our apartment, I have no idea how we'll manage to stay here." Bright, creative people who add spark and charm and genuine value to this place, one by one, they're being picked off. I grieve for the city I loved, albeit the city I chose to leave. It's rapidly disappearing.

Which, at last, leads us to:

10. Maine may have its problems (good lord it does), but it's still accessible to everyone, the artists and poets alike, the dreamers and starter-uppers, and even one very lucky woman who somehow managed to carve a career out of reviewing yarn. Maine has turned out to be a mighty fine place to call home, and I'd move there again in a heartbeat.


11. Once January arrives, you know I'll be planning another trip to California.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Plodding, Obdurate Effort

I'm in the middle of Sally Mann's unexpectedly good autobiography, Hold Still. I say "unexpectedly" because, while I knew she was a stunningly gifted photographer, I had no idea she was also such a gifted writer.

Her story itself is gripping. But I'm also finding her observations about her art, and about her creative process, deeply reassuring. Especially this:

Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It's not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it's plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

She touches the profoundly unglamorous truth of it all: the plodding, obdurate effort of making art. For me, it's writing. 

These days I feel like we're trained to focus on the end results, on the shiny cover, the hyperbole-laden press release, the accolades and lists. We're expected to maintain a beautiful lie across all social media outlets, a lie that suggests this life is easy, that these books were birthed fully formed with nary a moment's gestation. Because the truth is far less glamorous. 

The tenacious practice of your skills, that plodding and obdurate effort, they really are at the very heart of what writing is. The showing up day after day to work against odds that would make any sane person walk away. I'm comforted to know someone of Mann's caliber agrees. 

Clearly I am not sane, because I'm still here. How I crave those brief moments when I feel like I've actually created something beautiful, when I get a hit of what Mann calls, quite simply, "the relief." I've been doing a lot of plodding, obdurate effort lately--more than ever before--and I've also been catching a few exquisite hits of the relief. I still have a way to go, but those transcendent moments make it all worthwhile.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Seventeen Years

Seventeen years ago this week, we crossed the bridge into Maine and began our new life. That number seems surreal to me, both a blink of an eye and multiple lifetimes. I remember, in my 20s, zoning out when someone began a sentence with "17 years ago." That was, like, so irrelevant to now.

And yet if you're really, really lucky, if you manage to keep waking up every morning, your reward is that you, too, can be one of those people who begins their sentences with, "Seventeen years ago."

How exhilarating it felt to arrive in a place where we knew nobody. We had no strings in Portland, no ties, no history in this town at all. Our canvas was blank, we could paint on it whatever world we envisioned. I bought a state-of-the-art Dell desktop and set up shop in a sunny window overlooking our tiny courtyard. I took to the freelance lifestyle instantly.

Two years later that very same month, I got an idea to start an online knitting magazine all about yarn. I bought the domain "" and started working on the logo and layout. It all came quickly and easily. After years of using my skills for things that didn't resonate, it felt exquisite to pair them with my passion.

Blink, and that was 15 years ago. From my work on Knitter's Review came books, years of traveling and teaching, several radio interviews, and even a gig on PBS. It's been a really rather beautiful gift, a grand adventure, none of which I could have possibly anticipated when we crossed the river and cheered the "Welcome to Maine" sign.

Fifteen is a good number. It's odd but round, well past one decade but without the creeping sediment of 20. It's that roadside stop, the one at the crest of the hill, with picnic tables and blooming rugosas and a clear view of the road you've traveled thus far--and the possible paths ahead. It's a beautiful roadside stop, and I'm enjoying the rest, the perspective, the introspection. I've packed a picnic and may stay a while.

Right after we arrived in Portland, we received a housewarming gift from my old colleagues in San Francisco--a clivia plant, which sported a cluster of orange flowers. This plant has kept me company all these years, accompanying me through… let's see… one, two, three, now four moves. It's a patient and friendly plant that deserves a lot more TLC than I've provided. Yet this week, 17 years later and right on schedule, it decided to gift us with another bloom.

Friday, May 15, 2015

I've Missed You

I have a notebook I bought on 24th Street, back when I lived in San Francisco. My first entry was dated some time in 1995, right before Clare and I moved in together, after I'd left my travel writing job and was struggling to find my way in high-tech.

The early entries were full of frustration and confusion. Applying for jobs, being unhappy with my work, feeling like it was my fault, that if I just worked harder, I'd like it more. Then, turning the pages, I come to the spark of a dream to move to Maine. And then the move, and our early life here, the beginning of the farmhouse renovations, my launching of a new thing I called "Knitter's Review."

As time passed, the entries slowed. I was happier, I think, so I needed the notebook less. But every year, twice a year, on New Year's Eve and my birthday, I would make a point of pulling out the book and adding an update. The notebook is now 20 years old and still has empty pages waiting for me.

The surreal part is opening up this time capsule and reading what I wrote before, what was worrying me, what I was hoping to achieve, where I hoped to be. The angst seems to be subsiding, the humility and wisdom gaining, ever so slightly, with each year.

Returning to this blog after a little more than a year, it feels like opening that notebook and reading the last entry. I'm glad it had to do with that chowder, because it remains one of my favorite go-to recipes. I made some just a few weeks ago. I still haven't tried it with fresh corn, but it's on my list of things to do this summer.

Reading my words, looking at the pictures, I felt overwhelmed by a feeling of having missed it. I've missed you.

Blogging is in a state of flux. Some have already declared the blog dead. We're all about blips now, about instantly disappearing Snapchats, videos on Instagram (15 seconds) and Vine (6 seconds). Words? Keep it snappy, 140 characters or less.

What's happening to us? In 2014, the average American attention span clocked in at just 8.25 seconds. To put that in context, the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. As a writer, I wonder where this leaves the written word. As an easily distracted person, I confess I adore scrolling through my Instagram feed, looping my favorite vines over and over again.

I have no answers. All I know is that I've missed this place, and I've missed you.