Satisfied and tickled, too

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 16, 2016 (last essay for this paper!)

 

The only fan letter I ever wrote was to the novelist, Tom Robbins. No eye rolling, please. It’s important to note that I happened to be working for his publisher in New York City at the time (1982), and I happened to be selling cover art rights to his many foreign publishers. In essence, I was really working for him. So. It was a fan letter to my awesome boss.

The job itself is not at all glamorous; in fact, when I leave the position, my day-to-day boss, a tough woman VP for whom I type letters, asks me if I want to know why I will never amount to anything in the business. It does not help that the friend I make in that department becomes such a close friend (and is, still) that our desks have to be moved apart. Meanwhile, I gobble up the Tom Robbins novels, and on several occasions see him in the elevator looking adventuresome, approachable, and out of place; combined, these are enough to loosen New York City’s monopoly on my spirit.

I have blocked out whatever I might have tried to pull off in that fan letter. It had some history, probably. Having grown up in Seattle, I had already dragged the parents on a “tulip viewing” pilgrimage to the little town of La Conner, Washington, where the legendary creator of Sissy Hankshaw is known to live (and still lives, at 84).

I do know this: at the time of typing the letter on my old Royal, in the fabulous walk-up railroad flat I rent for more than two-thirds of my take home pay, I am thinking if I land a comment in this author’s ear, at least I will have done something in life. I probably gush out of every pore, because I am still in recovery from Catholic girls’ high school PTSD, for which gushing is not just the antidote but also the cure.

I drop it in the mailbox, thinking “There. Done. Did it. Now, move on.”

A few weeks later, despite the miniscule odds, I receive a letter postmarked La Conner. On the back of the envelope is an image of a duck and man with their heads down and submerged in water, along with the caption, “Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?” Inside, is a photocopied anatomical diagram of head and alimentary canal with word bubbles coming out of various mouths. “Dear Michelle,” it says, “I would be satisfied (and tickled, too) if yours was the only fan letter I ever received. Bless your heart for that. Love & Luck. Tom Robbins.”

Sometimes, we do smile big, gaping smiles with our hearts. That I have fired off a letter to a winsome, frolicking, woman-loving, psychedelic-seeing, longhand-writing genius and gotten it answered is almost more than I can bear. It makes me float for a while and then it makes me wonder, Well, what keeps us afloat, though? Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?

When I finally do drop out in search of something else, something imaginative and at the end of the road, there is no shortage of Robbins bubbling in my brain and fueling my fire. I take my father’s bequeathed computer and start tapping away, for hundreds and hundreds of hours at my first attempt at novel writing, which is — of course — about a roadside attraction. My prose is a far cry from Tom Robbins,’ but I like to think my characters might feel right at home reading his novels.

Fast forward 30 years.

A friend is over and is reading the famed, framed letter, as others have done, with a little smile. A diehard blues lover, he tells me he most appreciates the “satisfied and tickled, too” reference to the Mississippi John Hurt song. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I have never been aware of any allusion at all, which somehow utterly charms him because of this new layer, a layer that brings him right into the story.

Some time later but not so long ago, this same friend and his wife tell me they have a surprise for me, which is a present, a book. They’ve just been to Tom Robbins’ reading and book signing in NYC — of the memoir he said he would never write. And though they’ve all been told by the author, whose handwriting and eyesight are bad, that he cannot write personal notes, Barry and Christina, committed, stand in a long line in order to squeeze out my story in 12 seconds flat — the story of the only fan letter a girl has ever written, and the response she unexpectedly gets.

Below the shaky inscription to me and above his signature, he finds it in his heart to add: “Satisfied and tickled, too.” Which is a nice enough mantra in life, when you actually think about it.

Bow tie

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, September 18, 2016

 

A near perfect September day, you know the kind. We are about to witness a young bride walk down a path lined in pinecones and dusted with rose petals, a pathway of lightly mowed weeds and grasses, nothing too civilized or slick — in fact, all of it a little bit rough. The light breeze, the intense heat of the sun’s kiss on the backs of necks, the first yellow leaves on the aspens, these wrap us in late-summer sweetness.

It’s wedding season, you know: something you mostly hear about until you are actually there, looking on, squinting through the prisms of welling tears. Two people are about to make promises. This is something that feels big — as if silent forces are willing the entire cosmos into alignment, from stars and compasses to leaves on family trees to the micro-flutter of butterfly wings. All of it converges to a tiny crucible, a moment in time that brings human speck soldering to human speck.

Her dress is elegant and simple, off-white with a short train. Her flowers are native, carefully unceremonious. The sound of the breeze through the aspens ushers us into a deliberate moment of silence; and there is nothing to think about — and everything to enjoy. At attention, every fiber of our leaning in towards love makes us feel more vibrant

Hypnotized by this sound of the wind in the aspens, we allow ourselves to be drawn into a story about to begin. The words are good. The importance of friendship and of respect in a marriage. The value of constancy, and patience, and being present, and of never forgetting what it is that has sparked this fire to begin with. The two of them stand there, riveted, nodding, eager to quench a basic thirst for ritual, for the tying of bonds, for the making of meaning, for union. Their vows are fresh and easy versions of I-don’t-know-how-I-got-so-lucky meets I-promise-to-honor-and-respect.

But, I mean, they had us at saying each others’ names — saying names the way we all like to hear our names spoken. As if there is no other name in the world, weapons down, bare to the bone, a word that signifies one being and one being alone.

I notice that the four groomsmen’s ties perfectly match the flower arrangements. Gold, apricot, sage, eggplant. Later, when I ask if it this is a deliberate act, they look at me as if I’m insane. We were told fall colors, one says. That was all, says another. Well, I answer, you look great. Pretty ties — men forging order through the hand-over-hand of fabric-y knots — make me want to fall to my knees. Is it the tenderness of taking care?  Marking moments by dressing up for them? Is it the oddness of the tie itself combined with the time we take to tie it?

More and more we seem to be leaving it casual, moving through the world comfortably, sometimes even a little sloppily. Our shoes don’t have thirty buttons, our shirts don’t require ironing. We don’t wear overcoats and gloves the way we used to. Ties take it up a notch, especially in the mountains.

Last summer about this time, in a quirky workday moment selling cashmere sweaters, three men from a wedding party come in search of someone who can tie a bow tie. They are carrying tumblers of cocktails, wearing untucked tux shirts.  Charmed, I step up and use one of my motley skills. They have more friends, they venture, could they bring them by? A couple of hours later, I have fourteen dressed-up men in bow ties standing before me, and, eyeing the tie-scape in the small shop, I feel a great sense of absurdist accomplishment and joy. Something will be witnessed today.

At this very moment, the groom, in relaxed, country-life shades of tweed (but buttoned up nicely at the top), has just told his bride how much he loves her. How much he wants her to rely on him. How he hopes he will live up to everything she deserves. She has already said to him how all she has ever hoped for in a man, she has found in him. And more.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the two fledgling spouses are told that, as a matter of fact, because of this union the world will be just a little better of a place. That in union is much more strength and potential for love — that really anything on earth can be done from this starting point.

And as we wait in the noonday sun, wait for the groom to kiss his bride and for her to kiss him back, we cannot help but feel smitten, tenderized and completely renewed.

Mutiny of the bounty

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 21, 2016

 

Just a couple of hours down the road, there is a sweet little shady honor-system fruit stand, where before me, on a spectacular August-ripe summer day, stands an all-white Australian shepherd, a dog standing so still there is nothing to do but reach down and pat it.

Its owner, picking vegetables and a flower bouquet while keeping her eye on her charge (a baby boy playing with a carrot), tells us the dog is deaf and blind and that, in general, it is a good idea to let any dog sniff your hand before reaching toward it. Retroactively doing as I am told, I ask if it is a puppy. No, she says, the dog is actually 6 years old.

I find myself hypnotized by the quiet presence of the dog — just sort of struck by this animal’s life, eyes scarred and ears never having heard a sound, let alone a dog’s broader-than-human spectrum of them. I stay close, bending down. The owner fills us in on the nature of the rescue — another Aussie shepherd whose health was risked by breeders attempting, against great odds, to get the exceptional white one with blue eyes. Puppies with two merles as parents, usually dogs with an abundance of white in their coats, have a very small chance of being born normal; most are born either deaf or blind or both, and are then put down.

This dog has been adopted instead. She has been living on 40 acres, getting to know every square foot of the property by sense of smell and through the slow process of trusting those who love her.

She moves in miniscule increments in the fruit stand, micro-shifting this way and that like a compass needle, mostly staying put. I am feeling the silence of her world. She doesn’t know how beautiful she is, how little of the normal wear and tear is visible on her body. How thick, white, and wavy her fur is.

What gets me, though, right here and right now, is that she does not see the beauty and mutinous bounty — which can indeed overtake one — of the color-wheeled, sun-drenched, summer-thick world around her.

I buy slicer tomatoes so perfect, I am thinking of a sandwich (made on local brick oven bread I am not supposed to eat) of nothing but tomatoes and mayonnaise, just like the ones I ate as a kid. In the stall, a rainbow of produce is laid out neatly in brown bags, surprising flower bundles line a wall, and through the filtered mid-afternoon light, dust motes seem to be lolling in the air.  And outside? Where the dog cannot see, even more?

Outside, it is a banner year in these parts — nothing like it in 20 years according to people who live here. Trees are so laden, it is a wonder they can even support all the heavy flesh of fruit irresistibly dragging branches down weeping-willow style. Staring up from under the peach trees at a u-pick place to the brilliant blue of sky, I feel the thrill of warm fruit ripening so close to me, I can almost hear it. Everything is so lush, so about to burst.  In amongst the plums, we gorge a little before virtually holding our baskets up and tapping the beauties in.

In town, wild apricots line the sides of roads in blushing masses, then fall silently into ditches. And at a friend’s neighbor’s tree we find ourselves standing in the equivalent of fruit drifts, apricots so thick on the ground, our flip-flopped feet are sticky, sliding around, squishing the ripe fruit.

I am thinking of the pure white dog surrounded by the glory of the world and unaware of it. What do I know of her experience, though, really? Of her nose’s take on the world, or her heart’s? I know that in some ways what she really reminds me of most of all is me, of the sense of being a privileged human, someone surrounded by all kinds of great bounty and often not even aware of it.

In our readings of beautiful things, this is what we come across today by Pema Chodron, an 80-year-old American woman, Buddhist monk and gem. “What is meant by neurosis is that in limitless, timeless space — with which we could connect at any time — we continually have tunnel vision and lock ourselves into a room and put bolts on the door. When there’s so much space, why do we keep putting on dark glasses, putting in earplugs, and covering ourselves with armor?”

The white dog stays quietly in the stall. Me, I am outside, where — at least at the height of every kind of summer sensory overload — my dark glasses and earplugs are yanked out for a few moments in time.

Lessons from baseball?

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 29, 2016

Aside from hearing the cheers from the old Seattle Sicks Stadium (where Jimi Hendrix played in 1970) down the road a mile from the house I grew up in, I’ve only ever rubbed up against baseball a few times in my life. It just has not been part of the curriculum.

My dad was a football and tennis player. One brother was a runner. The other was a brain. My sister lettered in boys. I was not allowed to do sports on account of their toll on academics, so any knowledge of baseball for me was strictly anecdotal, academic or from television.

It’s 1981 in New York. I reconnect with one of my oldest friends in the world, and he invites me to a Yankees game, complete with press passes. I never understand how this particular friend, an actor, wrangles things, but he always does. I am excited to be drinking a free beer as tall as my head and the afternoon passes by in a pleasant, sunburn-y blur, the sound of fans cheering and bats cracking in the background. So this is baseball, I think to myself. Nice!

Because I’m not really a drinker, I manage to get on a #6 express train going the wrong way, deep into the Bronx. I slump onto a bench not noticing much until someone with a bike gets on the train, urgently points out my mistake, and tells me to get off at the next stop and find some NYPD blue to escort me to the other side and onto the right train. Which, sobering up quickly, I do.  Baseball game #1, lesson learned: Drinking and not driving don’t necessarily mix, either.

Fast forward 20 years, to 2001, back in Seattle now and buying tickets for a Mariners game. Along with the rest of humanity, it seems, we take public transportation down to Safeco Field. We think we are arriving in good time, but as we wend our way up to the Everest-level nosebleed section and are about to pop through the door-hole, there is not a single sound to be heard. It is utterly, eerily quiet: somehow we have arrived dead last, the stadium full to the brim and the first pitch about to be thrown that very second.

Celine, 8, who has never seen 40,000 people gathered before, stands frozen, and we have to drag her to the seats, explaining, as if to an alien, how baseball works. I note the differences 20 years have made. A big screen. The wave. Salmon burgers instead of hot dogs. Baseball game #3 (or so), lesson learned: It’s fun occasionally to blow a child’s mind, especially inadvertently.

Recently, we find ourselves driving past Coors Field in Denver and on a whim walk down and buy cheap tickets from someone hocking them right outside the gate. The seats are really low and right behind home plate, and we get ready for a walk down memory lane.  Aside from the fact that it’s a terrible game (hence the great seats), we find the Jumbotron overwhelming, with its contests and advertisements and the cameraman’s relentless crowd scanning. In the purple and black fanscape, the one food I notice a lot of is nachos. Pumped cheese and corn chips. Oh, and gigantic sodas, even for little kids (what are they doing here on a school night, anyway?).

Stop being so critical, I tell myself. Stop being so old school and enjoy this scene as if it were a fascinating movie about people who seem normal but already live in a science-fiction future where men with beards and knickers are worshipped for their prowess with a cowskin-covered orb and a stick.

There are a lot of foul balls. The most exciting thing by far about this baseball game is imagining catching one of these right out of the sky, like the lucky stiff who actually does to the right a couple sections. Baseball game #5 (or so), lesson learned: Pay attention to what is actually exciting you.

From Buzzfeed (a popular social news website) I learn that in the pantheon of baseball fan archetypes, I am The Completely Clueless Fan, the one who understands 14 percent of the rules, whose motto is “Why did he do that?” Yes. And, for me, the takeaway is always something completely unrelated to the actual game. But there is this one thing I really, really, like.

I like it when the super successfully thwacked up ball snaps every single person to attention — when, in the same breath-held moment of anticipation, they are captives of the present moment, in a state of suspended animation, jaws slack, eyes riveted, poised. As if anything could happen. Obviously, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, if you’re a baseball fan. But for a clueless one, not bad, right?