Annual self-portrait with rusty drawing skills, blotchy crayon face, botched ribbon banner, just one month late! AKA Self-portrait with euphoric cat letting saliva pool on my chest, omitting purple eye bags and other evidence of an inconsistent sleep cycle.
I’m still here, I’ve just been reading a lot. Reading all the time. This is what grad school is. More posts are to come as soon as I think of some. And comics. As soon as I think of some.
For self-portrait at 26, featuring Big Bird sweater, click here.
Due to traffic, the drive from NYC to Portland, ME was seven hours long. I dosed off somewhere in the last two hours. When I woke up, everything smelled like fish.
The night we arrived, Dave wanted to get a lobster. He had never had lobster outside of lobster mac and cheese. When I was a kid, I loved lobster so much that I would order it when I went out to dinner with my mom’s friends. It did not occur to me that it was extremely expensive. Apparently not everyone gets to have this formative childhood lobster-mooching experience. I agreed to share a lobster with Dave. He chose a restaurant called Street and Co. where he found a lobster meal for two that was plopped onto a bed of garlicky pasta and strewn with shellfish.
We had one full Sunday to spend in Portland, ME (The Other Portland). We mostly just walked around and ate food.
First we had brunch at a restaurant called Bibo’s Madd Apple, which lured me in with promise of “Satanic Eggs.” These devilled eggs with a sriracha and garlic filling were the best part of the whole meal. I also ordered a vegetable hash with poached eggs. I kept taking bites of the eggs and veggies, trying to pinpoint why I hated it so much, until I realized that what I thought was spinach was actually whole leaves of wilted basil. That basil had no business being in a potato hash. I really wanted to like the restaurant, with its wizard hat lighting fixtures and painted cardboard skyline. Watching the waitresses parade by with the most beautiful pancakes and pastries for the other patrons, it was clear that we had made a mistake in choosing savory over sweet. This establishment had earned their high ratings on Yelp with the sweet stuff, like a mocha waffle coated in donut glaze. The waitress came by and asked us if we liked our meal. For some reason, I beamed and said it was great.
After brunch I felt nauseous. I suggested we go to a cafe where I could get tea to settle my stomach. We found a tea house called Dobra Tea, which is a branch of the same tea shop I used to go to in Prague. The tea menu there is so immense that it begins with a table of contents. I started out looking for something that would soothe my belly, but then I stumbled upon a tea called “chaga chai.” According to the menu blurb, chaga is a mushroom that purportedly makes you immortal. After some deliberation, I decided that my uneasy stomach problem was minor compared to my mortality problem. I also tried a dessert item called “spicy Bohemian nuggets,” which would make an excellent pet name for one’s significant other. The spicy Bohemian nuggets were little cubes of soft gingerbread with bits of ginger and almond inside and they were amazing dipped into the chaga chai. I wish there was a Dobra Tea near me, but I suppose this one is closer than the one in Prague.
I wanted all the truffles in Portland. I kept finding truffles and buying them and immediately eating them. The night we arrived we found a specialty foods store called Maine’s Pantry with imaginative truffle flavors – strawberry balsamic, rose pistachio. The next day, after eating dark chocolate peanut butter cups in Starbucks to get the code for the bathroom door, I impulsively purchased and devoured more truffles. The best truffle of all was the rose pistachio truffle, which was not only tasty but decorated as lavishly as a tiny wedding cake.
There was a sock shop called Sock Shack that we spotted while passing through the arts district. It wasn’t open the night we arrived and it wasn’t open the on Sunday morning after brunch. We were determined to go to this sock shop. From the window display it was clear that it would be the experience of a lifetime. Eventually the sock shop opened and it was the greatest sock shop either of us had ever seen. Socks with avocados, cactuses, polar bears, dinosaurs, cowgirls. Socks with stripes and psychedelic patterns. They had snarky socks and socks that said “Sock Whore” on the sole. It could have been a dangerous and regrettable situation because I have a credit card, but I left with just two pairs of socks.
[INTERMISSION: We went back to our Airbnb at the end of a quiet dead-end street a mile away from the action of Portland. At that time, it was not so quiet because the neighbors were having a birthday party and their yard was full of six-year-olds hyped up on buttercream frosting. For what seemed like hours the same kid yelled, “Where is the lost city of Gonora?” He yelled it in predictable increments of time, like a cuckoo clock, while Dave attempted to sleep.]
On Sunday night, we went to another seafood restaurant called Eventide Oyster and Co. with the intention of trying raw oysters. Dave thought the portions would be small based on reviews he had read so we ordered several things. The waitress picked the oysters for us since we had no idea what we were doing. The oysters were okay – or perhaps I just don’t get oysters – but the seafood stew, the nori potato salad, the lobster roll, and the green salad were all interesting and wonderful.
We walked up and down the Eastern Promenade, a park full of walking paths that curl around the far east of the peninsula. It was a paradise for dog walkers.
Since my capacity for chocolate was limitless during this trip, we went out for dessert at Bar of Chocolate. The dark chocolate hazelnut torte probably the equivalent of eating five or six more truffles, which was exactly what I wanted.
The next day we stopped for breakfast at café called Local Sprouts. I ordered a breakfast burrito and one contingency pancake, because I had learned my lesson. It completely made up for the previous day’s brunch experience. They also had a tasty kombucha that they make in the cafe.
After breakfast, we sailed north in Dave’s Camry for Acadia National Park, which will need its own post.
“How’s your day going?” the porch lady asked.
“It’s going okay,” I said cheerfully.
I was walking my usual loop from my apartment through a maze of unlined streets, up steep hills, down steep hills, around the parimeter of a local hospital, and directly into the setting sun. The porch lady is my neighbor. Her porch is located three houses down from mine.
“How are you?” I asked the porch lady.
“Good! I went down this street and back four times today and now I’m done,” she said. “It’s too hot. How’s your day going?”
“It’s going okay,” I said.
“You look good!” she said.
“Thanks, so do you.”
“You always look good. How’s your day going?”
“You look good.”
We have this exchange regularly.
“Where’s your little friend that you always have with you?”
Dave? Does she mean Dave? My little friend? But it sounds like she is talking about a child or a dog.
“I think you are mixing me up with someone else,” I said, laughing.
“How is the writing going?”
That takes me aback. Have I mentioned writing to the porch lady? I don’t remember ever discussing it with her.
“It’s going alright,” I said, which is hardly ever true.
“What is it that you write again?”
“Fiction. Short stories.”
“I thought it was something else,” she said, trailing off.
Was she mixing me up with another writer? Another writer who lived on my street?
She began to talk about how she recently blew something up in her microwave and set off the fire alarms and her sons had to come over. Then she talked about the town and how she had many friends there who have all passed away – but she was ready for it, her mother warned her it would happen once she hit a certain age. A few years ago she used to walk as far as I do, but now she just goes up and down our street.
“These kids call me the porch lady,” said the porch lady. “Next time you come out I’ll walk with you. Not today. I’ve already went up and down this street four times today.”
I agreed, wanting to be polite, but knew I would be moving to Queens in just a couple of weeks. I said goodbye. I would miss the porch lady.
“You look good. You always look so good.”
This is the abbreviated story of how I went from Queensbury to Queens, the borough. They are not the same place.
First, I have been vehemently resisting a move to New York City for years. I didn’t intend to go to school near the city, I just happened to get into a program that was in the area. I hardly spent any time off campus. A day of walking from block to block in Manhattan sucked the life out of me, the pollution congested my sinuses, the soles of my feet turned black even though I wore sandals. I hated bars, I hated clubs, I hated fun. Subways made no sense. Every time I walked out of the Union Square station onto the street someone tried to elicit my help to save the bees or send me to a comedy show or award me an unsolicited haircut.
I went home to Queensbury after college. When it seemed that everyone my age was moving to Brooklyn, I said no thank you. When I read articles about leaving the city, they confirmed all of my biases about why I should never live there. But every time I moved since college I have gotten closer and closer. New York City reeled me in like a stubborn whale, kicking and screaming.
When I was accepted to an MFA program in the city, Dave and I concocted a plan to move to Queens. I could commute to class by subway and save money by not owning a car or taking MetroNorth several times a week. Moving to Queens made sense.
It’s obvious now that I have been fighting my destiny. At some point or another I was going to live in NYC. As soon as I stopped trying to swim against the tide that was dragging me in the direction of Queens, everything fell together with little effort.
I still have hesitations – leaving behind coworkers that I love, leaving behind a writing community that I only recently fell into, leaving behind my favorite purveyors of Indian cuisine. What will I do without my Westchester friends nearby? How will I function without secret nature trails and the gardens of strangers and a view of the full moon? What will become of my self-esteem without the porch lady? Who will tell me I look good? How will I adjust?
But right now I am writing from a one-bedroom apartment in Astoria with checkerboard floors and an abundance of locks on the door and minimal closet space and, let me tell you, it was not very hard after all.
When we arrived at the market, Dave joined the line for cold brew coffee and I, resisting the siren song of a library book sale just a few yards west, immediately ditched him to scope out the produce selection. I spotted newcomers to our market – a stand selling pints of vegetarian soups and new cheese vendors distributing cubes of goat cheddar on toothpicks. Weaving through the clusters of impetuous little boys nursing their 10am ice cream pops and well-behaved terriers on long leashes, I saw that everyone seemed to have long bouquets of light pink poppies wrapped in brown paper balanced on one shoulder. The unfurled petals looked as translucent as tissues. They were magnificent and I wanted them.
I got my quart of strawberries, capped with a little hairnet to prevent spillage. I bought a dozen eggs and a bag of greenhouse tomatoes. I swooped up some kale, salad greens, and baby carrots at my favorite green vegetable stand, as well as three heads of lettuce that looked like frilly sea anemones plucked from the Pacific.
There I also discovered a type of radish called a “French breakfast radish.” I tried to imagine all of the delicious French breakfasts that one could make with such radishes and came up with nothing.
Dave, roasting under the direct UV rays, rejoined me with iced coffee. I made my rounds again, vacillating between not wanting to eviscerate my bank account and also not wanting to miss a single food experience, yet also having a limited number of arms with which I can embrace bouquets of chard.
Summer goes by so quickly. Berry season peaks and passes and before you know it everyone is selling cantaloupes. You have one day to devour your raspberries before they turn to jam on their own accord. Eventually there are pumpkins everywhere and then you know that you don’t have very much time. Brooding, you count the number of subsequent summers that you can expect to be alive and the number seems inadequate for the amount of experience you mean to digest and you are always ravenous for more of everything, everything, everything. It’s all so unfair.
On my second round, I bought three poppies. The seller recommended that I buy a few buds so that they would last longer. I bought one closed bud and two that had just begun to unfold their petals. At home, I clipped the ends and arranged them in a vase of water on the kitchen table, making a point to sigh every time I crossed through the kitchen.
Two hours later, I was mortified to find, in place of one poppy, a droopy stem with a shaggy black head, its discarded petals in a heap. It didn’t even last one day! I wanted to shake my fists at the sky.
“But everyone at the market bought them!” I whined. I couldn’t imagine that the entire town had a bouquet of withering poppies in their kitchen. Surely there would be riots.
We went out for a few hours and when we returned, I found the sight of the second poppy’s bear pistil shot right through my heart. One petal held on for dear life but the others were piled in the fruit bowl. The two droopy stems in the vase without petals look as pathetic as naked, badly-shorn Barbie dolls. The memory of everyone carrying poppies through the market brought me more pleasure than the poppies I purchased. Why is life so unfair? The last poppy never opened, thank god. It was too young to witness such carnage.
Having learned our lesson, we ate the quart of strawberries before they could decay into a soft pulp. There are always ants waiting somewhere, even if we aren’t always thinking about them.
The first thing you should know is that everything is our fault. We don’t know how to leave nature alone. We erect houses in wild pig territory. We find a baby monkey all alone in the forest and keep it on a leash in the corner of the kitchen. When connect our towns up to the power grid, sloths get zapped while trying to cross the power lines.
“This is Perla,” the guide Carlos says, indicating a scruffy wild pig trotting circles in a pen. She has dark, wiry hair and a rotten odor. “She used to live with humans when she was a baby pig. Have you ever seen a baby pig? They are so cute, aren’t they?”
The two youngest children in the group, brother and sister, wholeheartedly agree.
Perla scampers up to Carlos and lets him scratch behind her ears.
“When Perla was a cute little baby, she lived with humans. Then she grew older and she developed a scent gland.”
He squeezed a lump on her back near her tailbone and a spray of rank liquid shot into the air. It was like one of those prank daisies that you use to squirt water on unsuspecting friends.
“This is how wild pigs mark their territory. Can you imagine having a pet that does this in your house? It makes everything smell like Perla’s musk.”
Perla flops onto her back and Carlos gave her a vigorous belly rub. The air around her pen smells like sweaty garbage. We all line up single file to scratch the smelly pig’s belly. She reminds me of my aggressively affectionate cat Penny.
“She’s Penny’s soul pig,” I whisper to Dave.
Carlos went on to explain why Perla has lived at Proyecto Asis from the beginning. She spent her piglethood with a human family who then dropped her at the reserve when she became an adult, claiming that they had just found her wandering alone. Wild boars are normally very violent and territorial and they live in large packs. Now she is so friendly with humans that she would never survive in the wild and she has no pack to protect her.
After Perla, we meet the macaws: two sad sacks who live only for sliced bananas, also former pets. It is illegal in Costa Rica to keep wild animals as pets, but we see time and time again that people do it anyways. People take the macaws inside and clip their wings so they can’t escape out the window. Some of them are kept by native Ticos and confiscated by the police. Most of them are smuggled abroad and sold in pet stores.
Several dozen green parrots who have spent their lives in living rooms with clipped wings occupy two large cages. One cage is full of parrots that are growing the feathers on their wings back, a process that takes several months, and the other cage is for parrots that have already regenerated their feathers. The parrots that have flown before teach the ones that haven’t how to use their wings.
Carlos tells us the story of a parrot with clipped wings that was kept in a cage next to a newborn baby. The parrot learned that crying earned the baby a lot of attention. He realized that if he mimicked the sound the mother and father would come running. As far as the parrot was concerned, this was his family, too, and he deserved as much attention as the infant. The family quickly got tired of its racket and brought the parrot to Proyecto Asis.
Carlos plays a clip on his cell phone of the parrot belting out human baby sobs in the parrot cage.
“Do you know what the other parrots did when we put this one in the cage?” Carlos asks.
“They beat him up?” a little boy offers.
Forty other parrots beat him up and after a few days he only made parrot sounds.
Carlos shows us the spider monkeys. His favorite is a somber female monkey named Yessica who seems to be in perpetual mourning. She comes to a ledge at the side of her cage and dangles her hand. Carlos takes it and kisses it. Yessica was once someone’s pet and wore a leash and a diaper. Then Yessica grew up and became boring.
We line up again to stroke Yessica’s hand and feel the joints of her opposable thumbs.
“Don’t show your teeth because monkeys see that as a sign of aggression,” Carlos warns us, “And don’t make eye contact. Monkeys see that as a sign of aggression.”
As I take Yessica’s hand I grin sheepishly at Dave, trying and failing to conceal my enormous white teeth. The hand is smooth and her grip is strong. Suddenly, I feel an agitated tug. When I glance over, Yessica’s face is furrowed. She is showing me all of her pointed teeth and trying to yank me into the cage. I wrestle my hand away.
“I forgot to mention that Yessica sometimes does this with women,” Carlos says.
I look back at the misogynist monkey. She seems to still be viciously glaring at me.
“That’s why I never go into the cage,” Carlos says. He addresses the monkey. “I love you, Yessica, but I do not trust you.”
He took her hand and kissed it again.
Then, at last, a baby monkey! Playful, energetic, and safe. She had her own cage near the parrots and gracefully maneuvered the branches and obstacles in her cage. When we stopped outside, she posed her graceful dancer’s body, gripping the wire with outstretched limbs, and awaited our gifts. We take turns playing with her, offering her leaves to eat and ponytails to tangle. She steals one woman’s sunglasses and retreats to the top of the cage.
“Okay,” Carlos sighs. “Time to work.”
He opens the cage and slips inside. The baby monkey immediately leaps onto his back. She crawls all over him, using his body as a jungle gym. Carlos wrestles the glasses out of her hands and she protests. He slides out of the gate and locks the door, returning the sunglasses.
“Imagine how happy our baby monkey is now,” he says. “She used to live in a house and wear a diaper.”
The way the baby monkey uses her tail like a fifth limb, it’s hard to picture how her old human family could keep a diaper on her. Carlos tells us that people often say they just found their baby monkeys in their yards, but female monkeys never leave their children alone. That means that this baby’s mother was likely killed so that the human family could keep her has a pet.
“Just remember that when you see someone keeping a baby monkey as a pet, its mother is dead,” Carlos said. “And if it’s in the United States, it was smuggled out of Costa Rica because it is illegal here. This is why the spider monkeys are an endangered species and not the more aggressive monkeys. You should never keep them as pets.”
The youngest little boy crouches on the ground, dejectedly feeding leaves to his new best friend the baby monkey.
“I want a baby monkey,” he says. He sounds as though he has just learned of his own eventual mortality. But wouldn’t a lifetime without a baby monkey be the same as death?
The little girl squeezes her mother’s hand.
“Mommy, I really want a baby monkey,” she pouts. “It could live in our house, can’t it?”
Carlo’s expression is vacant. Dave recalls watching a scathing documentary about the fast food industry. After learning a number of alarming facts about pink slime and meat glue, he left the movie theater urgently craving a McDonald’s hamburger.
We never learn.
I was in a gift shop the first time I heard it. The tune was familiar but I couldn’t pair a title to the song.
“It’s ‘Smoke on the Water,” Dave said. “Or ‘Smoke in the Water.’ Either way, the title doesn’t make any sense.”
I knew the instrument was an ocarina. They are sold in every gift shop in La Fortuna and perhaps every gift shop in Costa Rica.
At night in La Fortuna, there wasn’t much to do besides wander the streets, eat casados in local restaurants, and browse gift shops. Every gift shop in town carried the same wares. Devilish masks, souvenir magnets, colorful messenger bags, and shelves of ocarinas. Some circular, some animal-shaped. Ocarinas made up a quarter of gift shop merchandise. It became my favorite joke. I’d pick up a ceramic vase in a gift shop and, turning it over, say, “How am I supposed to play this? It doesn’t even have holes.”
Later that same evening I heard the same tune whistled on the other side of the park in the center of La Fortuna and I supposed it was the same person. It happened again while I was drowsily scribbling on the terrace of Las Colinas Hotel. In the streets below me, motorcycles roared and Spanish sentences were rattled and “Smoke on the Water” rose up above it all. I thought, this guy needs to learn another song.
In the hotel room, I absentmindedly whistled the tune as I washed a frenzied mob of ants down the drain.
“Why do you have to do that?” Dave moaned.
“The song is in my head,” I said.
“It must be the default ringtone here. That’s why we hear it all the time.”
“Nah, it’s an ocarina.”
“But it sounds the same every time, like a ringtone, and we hear it in different places. It can’t just be one person.”
One night we went to dinner at a restaurant under a grass-roofed cabana. All of the staff wore traditional costumes. The menu featured pricy tropical cocktails and a volcano made of rice and a chocolate lava cake shaped like a volcano. We ate our usual casados – a large plate of rice, beans, plantains, and often meat or fish. The casado was the canvas to which salads, eggs, and avocado could be added. We ate this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I must have had at least twenty casados while I was in Costa Rica.
While waiting for our meals, Dave and I both hummed “Smoke on the Water.”
“I’m going to ask the guy at the front desk of the hotel about the song,” Dave said. “He probably could tell us what it is.”
The front desk agent at the hotel, a Tico who always wore a baseball cap and a polo shirt, had already helped Dave with a rope burn he got from a rappelling accident. He taught me that the tape used with gauze is called espadrapo. He wrote down the name of a burn ointment for me to take to the nearest pharmacia. Now he was our go-to for all Ask-a-Tico questions.
As we were discussing “Smoke on the Water,” we suddenly heard the song playing nearby. We looked around the restaurant for a tourist or a cell phone or whatever it might have been.
We saw the Ocarina Man standing just outside of the cabana, serenading us with his usual ocarina solo and making his continuous eye contact. The Ocarina Man saw our excitement and thought he had found his customers. He was a traveling salesman, a walking advertisement for the ocarina. We had found each other at last.
The next day we would ride in a van with two other couples to see a waterfall in the rainforest. The Canadian couple would tell us about how they stayed up too late and drank too much at a tourist trap called the Lava Lounge, the only nightlife to be found in La Fortuna. They would tell us about how they sat at the edge of the cabana with their drinks and chatted with tourists and Ticos passing by. They would mention how they met a man who carves little flute-things by hand. The Canadian guy would describe how the Ocarina Man takes six days to make each little flute, how there was a different animal on each side. He was impressed by the artistry and bought one for ten dollars.
We had met the Ocarina Man on the same night that they did, but we didn’t buy anything. We never approached him or looked at his ocarinas. I wasn’t looking for souvenirs or anything else to weigh down my suitcase. I already had enough talking, spending money, and being awake for one day. But the night was still young for the Ocarina Man. His sack of ocarinas was so heavy and his wallet was still so light.
In 2014 I wrote about canoodling with danger (not asteroids). Last year I wrote about being open to all pleasant/unpleasant possibilities. Here are some wishes for a shiny new year…
This year, I hope you are kinder to yourself. I wish for you to be your own best friend, but also continue to be an excellent friend to all of the people who don’t have to inhabit your corporeal form. I hope this year you are an especially good friend to those who help jump your car when you leave your headlights on for a whole work day. I hope you trade your endless mental chatter for silence and silence for an accordion. Or a sitar. Or something easier to play, like a ukulele or a rain stick. I hope this year everyone stops saying, “Life is short” and starts using the word “stroopwafel.” I hope that 2016 brings you flamenco mornings, cider doughnut afternoons, and walks with your cat by light of the full moon. I hope you find no pleasure guilty. And when you leave your headlights on for the fourth consecutive time, or you forget to sign up for health insurance, or you dig yourself into a deep hole, all the while thinking, “I am digging myself into a deep hole,” I hope you go easy on yourself. I’m sure you are trying your best.