Naturally Alone

One of the first things I did after breaking up with my boyfriend was to reinstate podcasts in the bedroom. Before we moved in together, I had liked to fall asleep to episodes of shows he didn’t care about, like WTF with Marc Maron. I also enjoyed being lulled by ASMR videos, which I had introduced him to but were not his cup of tea. Chatty podcasts didn’t help me get to sleep, but after causing turmoil in two lives by ending a long-term relationship, I particularly didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts in that big bed. So I started playing media from my smartphone all night, every night. The sudden increase in free time meant that I could subscribe to new podcasts and catch up on older episodes that I’d missed. Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, I started binge-listening.

I also binged on slight and comforting TV shows, even ones that I’d seen a hundred times already, like Friends and Gilmore Girls. It felt like a huge relief that I could once again watch “my shows” without self-consciousness or compromise. As most people do, I had made small shifts in my lifestyle and schedules to accommodate my partner, even more so after we moved in together. Over time I began to resent those—although I regret none of them now—and had a gnawing feeling that something was fundamentally wrong in our pairing. If we were right for each other, I thought, I wouldn’t have this growing sense of self-protectiveness. I didn’t want to work at the relationship anymore, so I decided to stop.

He is planning to move out soon, and I can already picture the scenes as if from the lonely third act of a Hollywood romance: me sitting alone with a glass of wine in front of the fireplace, me talking to the cats because there is nobody else around, me generally looking wistfully around the townhouse that I rented because it was good for us and not necessarily for me. Except for the cat thing, I would slot nicely into the stereotypical lead male role: the perpetual bachelor(ette) who is emotionally reticent, uncommunicative, and commitment-phobic. That’s how I see myself through the eyes of the men I’ve broken up with, anyway.

Everything I’ve been feeling lately could be tweaked to fit that narrative. There is comfort at being back in charge of my time and my immediate environment. (Read: control freak.) Relief at no longer having to make the tiniest sacrifice for somebody else. (Read: too selfish to love another person.) Sadness and regret about ending a relationship that was often happy, with somebody I still care about. (Read: we are meant to be together and I’m just too scared to accept it.) Are these interpretations borne of Hollywood bullshit, or do they reflect reality? Why is it so important to me that I can piddle away my time in the insignificant ways of my own choosing?

Because I want to share my life with someone, I’ll keep searching for deeper answers to those questions. I know that I’m capable of self-sabotage, but I also believe that I’m capable of true love. So I pick up and move forward with hope.

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Photo Shorts: Grandpa

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May 2007

My grandpa joined us in 2007, at my parents’ house, to celebrate my graduation from college. In subsequent years he entered his eighties, started losing his eyesight, and was less and less able to make the three-hour drive to Sacramento from his longtime home in Salinas. After I moved to Portland in 2008 I saw him once a year, for a while, and then more seldom, but I always talked to him on the phone on Thanksgiving and Christmas. He was always eager to hear about what was going on in my life. As a person and as a husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he was generously loving and joyous to be around. I never really got to know the frail, mentally faded version of himself that he became in the years leading up to his death on March 31. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse, I don’t know. What is certainly a blessing is the fact that I got to speak to him over the phone one last time, with my sweet aunt holding the phone up to his ear as lay unconscious. I told him how much I loved him.

Rest in peace, Grandpa. You are sorely missed.

Athlete

Growing up, the only athletic injury I received was a knee sprain from running across the asphalt playing kick-the-can. (Despite having Internet access, my friends and I still enjoyed the ancient physical art of kicking cans in the mid-’90s.) I planted my right foot on the ground while making a sharp turn and wrenched something horribly out of place. Nothing was broken or torn, but it hobbled me for a few days and made that knee susceptible to future re-injury for several years.

There has been very little sporting in my life since I quit karate lessons at the age of eleven. With other kids in the neighborhood I played a little basketball and rode bikes through the dirt, but most of the time I was instead reading books, playing video games, learning to build a website, or writing fiction in the style of Ann M. Martin. I hated athletics. In high school P.E., my like-minded friends and I put forth minimal physical effort but mustered as much sarcastic energy as we could. We aimed it at the teachers and students who had a healthy zest for being active, because obviously we knew better; we could see that the school was being oppressive by forcing us to confront our physical weaknesses instead of being content with our academic strengths. I was a healthy teenager, but I could never do a pull-up and could barely do a set of push-ups from my knees. During team sports I always took a defensive position way out in the middle of whatever field we were playing on and, in the woeful tradition of nerdy kids everywhere, prayed that none of the sporting action would come near me.

My resistance to organized athleticism comes from a basic dislike of being trained in any way. I’ve always been okay with academic lessons because I tend to grok those easily, but when it comes to more challenging pursuits I am inclined to either quit prematurely, or go it alone without proper guidance. This stubbornness has influenced the way I approached bicycling as a hobby: with an independent spirit and a foreshortened view of the learning curve. I started with modest rides, since all I needed at the time was a way to get around Portland without a car. A new group of friends introduced me to bicycle touring, which at the beginner level involved riding 25 – 30 miles to a campsite. I fell in love with the adventurous spirit of those trips. They wore me out, but never caused serious pain. I’d been led to believe that any person with a reasonable fitness level would be fine with biking such distances. I took that idea to an extreme, and learned the hard way that being in good cycling shape requires more than just a healthy stamina. Continue reading

News of 2015

First, I’m sorry for my absence over the past six months. Life has been busy, and thankfully mostly with good things. Since the year is coming to a close, a retrospective seems an appropriate way to ease back into the blogging habit. Let’s talk about the developments of 2015.

New Home

After six years of living in Southeast Portland, and five years of commuting over the Ross Island Bridge, I decided to shake things up. I moved across the river and downsized from a 650-square foot apartment, with basement storage, to a much more expensive 460-square foot studio, with no extra storage, on the edge of Downtown. It felt like time to try a more urban (and, one might say, upscale) living environment. There are some things I love about it—secured entry, fitness room—and some things I don’t—expensive parking, street noise. By May of next year I’ll need to decide if the high costs are still worth it.

New Relationship

It’s very rare that I can say I’m still involved with the same person I was seeing twelve or thirteen months ago. This was a year of persistence and luck in the relationship department. I was in love with a reticent man who didn’t make himself completely available even as we spent time together; my friends said that I should cut it off. But I knew I didn’t want that. Instead, I learned how to be patient and let a relationship develop over time. He gradually let me into his heart and started taking good care of mine. We continue to have fun together and grow closer.

New Bruises

My bike riding continued to be hampered by leg problems this year. I finally accepted the fact that stretching alone wasn’t helping, so I went to a physical therapist. He persuaded me to have an eight-session course of ASTYM therapy, in which my left leg was scraped with curved-edge plastic tools all the way from hip to calf, in order to break up tissues that had adhered together over three years. For a few weeks, my leg looked as if I’d had rocks thrown at it. I have since been tasked with regular strengthening and stretching exercises to rebuild those muscles. My next step might have to be hiring a personal trainer to get me to stick to that regimen, as I have failed so far.

New Pilgrimage

I so thoroughly enjoyed my visit to New York City this year that I aspire to make it an annual trip. It’s begun to feel like a necessary “fix” for me to get immersed in that fascinating hive of people for five to six days at a time. As long as I keep finding affordable airfare and continue to have friends’ couches to sleep on, I plan to go there again and again.

Happy New Year!

San Juans, Part 2: Solitude

I’m sure that many things dirtier than bike tires had passed across the floors of Union Station, but still, it felt almost illicit to be rolling my bicycle across the marble and leaning its bulk against a polished mahogany bench, next to people waiting for their trains. Some curious eyes were drawn to me as I started unclipping and fiddling with my luggage. Nobody approached me with questions; I shouldn’t have expected that, but I would have embraced the chance to talk about my plans for the upcoming week. Any listener could have tasted my excitement as I told them I was setting off for five days of camping by bike, that in this array of bags were all the supplies I would need for sleep and survival. Among people who don’t backpack or “bikepack”, camping without a car must seem a little exotic, while to me it seems rational. I bike because I love the activity itself, and because it pleases me to subvert the twin cultural paradigms of laziness and haste. I was already looking forward to being far away from here, out of the station and off the train, breaking away from all the confined spaces of everyday life. I wanted to be on the road, in the wind, earning the right to be exhausted every night and to eat more calories than a day at the office would warrant.

First I had the minor challenge of consolidating my items to comply with Amtrak’s baggage limits. On the bike, things can be strapped on top of one another or clipped onto the sides of other things with carabiners, dangling anywhere as long as they don’t interfere with brakes or shifters. Baggage to be checked or carried on, however, needs to be more self-contained. I reduced my carry-on load to two bags, a bucket (which had my snacks), and a helmet, all of which I struggled to hold while keeping my bike upright in the boarding line. The bags kept slipping off my shoulders. When I reached the counter, I got flustered about holding people up as I wrested free one of my hands to avoid having to grab the boarding pass with my teeth. I made it to the train platform without any crashes, and relievedly gave my bike to the luggage handler. I saw a few other cyclists getting on the train, some of them also geared up for touring, but our paths didn’t cross and I was left wondering where they were headed. Instead of placing myself in their orbit and asking about their plans, I spent the three-hour train ride writing in my journal and fantasizing vaguely about meeting new people at some future point in my trip.

After disembarking in Seattle, I reassembled my rig so I could bike to the apartment I’d booked through AirBnb. The hostess was out of town; I found the key inside her unlocked apartment and brought all my bags upstairs. It was only mid-afternoon, so I had ample time to shop for groceries and otherwise be a regular tourist. But, having already been to downtown Seattle many times, I couldn’t think of anything to do except walk around and look for a dinner destination. I decided to treat myself to a rich meal, since I was probably going to be eating soup cooked over a camp stove for the next several nights. A seafood restaurant with sidewalk tables seemed like a good fit. I ordered a glass of wine and the highest-priced dish on the menu. I hadn’t exactly budgeted for this trip—another mistake—but if I had, a halibut entree would certainly have been a violation.

It was still early as I ate my dinner, splitting my attention between a book and the foot traffic passing in front of me. Normally, dining out alone is enjoyably peaceful, but this time I wasn’t satisfied. Seattle wasn’t part of the adventure I had been so excited for; it was too familiar, I had too much free time, and I was feeling lonely. Loneliness was the one thing I dreaded about this trip. I figured it was overly romantic to hope for any meaningful connections with people I’d meet on the road, especially because I am reserved with people I don’t know. It struck me that I was going to exist in a very quiet, self-sufficient manner over the next five days. The self-indulgence aspect was proving to be hollow, at least on this initial leg of the journey. Nonetheless, I fully committed by spending the rest of the night on the AirBnb couch, watching TV with beer and chocolate cake, my bike safely propped up next to me. Continue reading

Photo Short: Ornamental

New York City is full of large things: skyscrapers, vast parks, endless crowds of people, huge cultural impacts. I’m attracted to all of those things, like anyone who lives far from New York but has been instilled with ideas about the city from the time they started watching television. But that’s not exactly the reason why I’m compelled to visit. I’m interested in how the small, mundane aspects of life fare in that jungle of humanity, import, and history. I like to sample the feeling of going about an ordinary day there, and to notice the inconspicuous but wonderful details that cross your path when you go for a long walk in Manhattan. These ornaments were spotted somewhere near the East Village.

Commuter Guilt

It’s hard to be a good bike commuter when you’re not a morning person. My sleepy, dream-drunk brain cares not for the evidence that an ordinary day will start off better if I kick it off with a bike ride. Neither a rational appeal to my environmental conscience, nor a visceral appeal to my love of pedaling down the road with fresh air in my face, is enough to make me enjoy getting up at 7:00 in the morning. At that hour, the only logic I can process is anything that justifies more sleep: namely, the idea that I can always drive to work, which obviously takes less time. My better instincts have a hard time winning that argument when I’m not fully awake. Only in consciousness do I start to regret not using them. As soon as I hit a patch of bad traffic, or see another driver do something reckless, I tense up and wish that I was on a bike.

Honestly, the car commute from my new apartment is not bad at all. It takes twenty minutes at most, and doesn’t have a major bottleneck like the one I used to deal with when crossing the river from the East side. I drive to work willingly when I need the extra time savings, but it’s not the choice I make when I’m living mindfully. Driving induces a guilt that is much worse than any traffic-related stress, and it’s mostly because I set impossible standards for myself. When I moved to this neighborhood, I intended to ride my bike and public transit to work every day. (Quick explanation: I live far enough from the office that it’s not practical to cycle the entire distance, so I cover some ground by taking my bike onto the train.) Having light rail just outside my door facilitates the silent expectation that there is basically no excuse for me not to use it. But I’m not perfect. I get lazy; I have bad mornings. I tend to let those lazy episodes haunt me for the rest of the day, making me feel like I’ve taken a large step backward and need to atone, lest I drift even farther away from the person I want to be.

I’m using this dramatic language for a reason, that is, to call myself out on silly self-flagellation. There must be a way to allow for margins of error in my behavior, to be more flexible in creating my life’s narrative. No matter how much I try to set myself up for success, I cannot be programmed to do the “right” thing, or even the thing in my best interest, all the time. And that is okay.

There You Are

First, the trappings of my life were wrapped up and stored in boxes. A subset of things was packed away to keep with me when traveling. I started eating more takeout than usual, and resting things on the top of sealed boxes instead of on the furniture I’d either moved aside or sold. My cats were getting worried about their changing environment. Then, I left town for a week and returned to my half-home for one more night’s sleep. The next day, the cats were locked into the bathroom while I was reaching peak stress levels throughout the apartment and beyond, organizing last-minute items and giving instructions to the friends who came over to help me move. I was amazed at how many possessions were left after one yard sale, trips to two different recycling centers, one carload to the landfill, four thrift-store donations, and several Craigslist sales. The ten-foot U-Haul almost looked like it couldn’t take everything, which I’d thought impossible when moving into a studio apartment. But it carried out the job after some masterful strategy on the part of my friends-cum-movers.

All that effort for a drive of four miles to my new apartment on Portland’s West side. My judgment on getting rid of things turned out to be pretty sound. Surprised as I was by the volume of stuff I had, I’ve been even more startled by how well everything has fit into a studio apartment that I feared would be too small for comfort. It feels just right for a home base: comfortable and welcoming when I want to be here, and not gathering too much dust when I’m out on the town or traveling. The building is full of urban conveniences that I’ve never had in a home before, like controlled entry, a parking garage (which lets my car and bike live indoors, at last!), and a trash and recycling room right down the hall. My commute to work feels ten times easier without having to cross any bridges over the Willamette.

Only some superficial items are left to unpack here. I am free to use my time in fulfilling ways now, like picking up some of those good habits I was starting to establish in my old home on a quiet street with a gym nearby. It’s hard to bounce back from a big disruption to your routine, especially when that routine felt a little tenuous to begin with. “Wherever you go, there you are.” That’s an idea I have been struggling with and will have to delve into another time.

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Jasper gets to know a different world

Photo Short: Restless

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Routines are temporarily suspended. I could sit down and write, but with less than four weeks left in my current apartment, I’m taking every free hour to organize and cull. I’ve been sneezing from the stirring up of five-year-old dust as I wipe off stored objects and price them for a yard sale. My next apartment is substantially smaller, so I’m making brutal cuts. I cannot settle!

Photo Short: Don’t Feed the Bears

I came upon this unexpected bear habitat while biking along a remote spur of San Juan Island. It reminded me of home; Portland is a city where people love to make informal, public exhibits of figurines and other tchotchkes. On any given street you might see an arrangement of tiny wizards in someone’s front yard, or a plastic horse tethered to a ring embedded in a circa-1900 sidewalk. But I’ve never seen something as soft and vulnerable as a teddy bear outside here. They wouldn’t survive the rainy weather.