Guest Blog Post, Bruce Cohen: SIGNS

Bruce CohenMost of us would be lost, wandering around aimlessly, without signs. Enter, exit.  Push, pull.  Take a ticket.  Some people who know me might say I am an inflexible rule follower with no sense of adventure or humor, but I have a wild streak.  For example, I walked up to the convenience store and considered the sign: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service.  So I took off my shirt and spray painted my upper torso black but the cashier threw me out despite my protests.  What constitutes clothes?  Must they be made of cloth?  I mentioned that Lady Gaga wore a gown made of raw meat.  My argument was shown to the curb, so I rapped on the glass door until another minimum wage attendant shuffled out and I inquired if flip flops and tank tops were acceptable.  He shrugged, not seeming to have a problem with that wardrobe choice, so I went home to put on some real clothes, came back and bought my energy drink, two unlucky lottery tickets and read the front page of the scandal sheet while standing in line, which technically is probably illegal, since I wasn’t going to buy it, but what are they going to do?  They can’t make what’s in your mind or what you see illegal, can they?  Technically it’s probably stealing but is it really?  Plus, there’s no rule (or even a sign) that states that your eyes must remain forward while waiting for the cashier to make change.  Some women have eyes in back of their heads, but I don’t want to go down that road.  Also, because of this digital age, part time cashiers are terrible at basic arithmetic and fewer and fewer can even make proper change in their heads.  My bill was $7.43 with tax so I gave the girl a ten-spot and three singles and she acted flummoxed, horrified and said I had given her too much money.  She seemed angry with my explanation that I just wanted a crisp five dollar bill and a few coins as though that was somehow more taxing for her brain.  She reached under the counter for a calculator and freaked out when she discovered the batteries were dead.  I hate to have singles crowd and clutter up my life and wallet.  Plus, I am an active political advocate for abolishing the penny.  Ironically we should all stash our pennies till they become obsolete and then they will be worth something but if everyone does it they will continue to have no real value.  Life is filled with such ironies and paradoxes.

 

I am the last person in America to not have automatic deposit or an ATM card, at least that what my friends say, not my real friends.  My real friends know who I am and don’t judge.  The idea of paying bills online is so beyond me I believe more in the feasibility of time machines or the lost continent of Atlantis.  Besides, I like going to the Post Office and picking out the various specialty stamps.  I especially love the jazz musicians and famous poets and baseball legends.  Every other Thursday, when I get my paycheck, I drive over to the bank.  Often I am the only customer in line.  I remember back in the good old days there would be long lines on Thursdays and it was almost impossible to find a parking spot and people would grow impatient and eat their lunches while fidgeting in line but now the tellers look bored and are more friendly, welcoming the few patrons who actually come into the bank and they know each of us by our first names.  There is a sign on the door that I believe is not so subtlety directed at would-be bank robbers that I don’t remember verbatim but the gist of it is that it’s against bank policy to wear masks, hoods, sunglasses or anything that covers your face when entering the bank.  Footnote: when a man walks into the bank wearing a Ninja Turtle mask it’s a safe assumption that he also is carrying a gun unless it’s Halloween and he has fake nun chucks.  It says it’s for the safety and comfort of all patrons but everyone knows the deal.  Plus, there are cameras all over.  Nothing is secret in America anymore.  You can’t get away with anything.  You can even get speeding tickets when there are no cops around.  They put microchips under babies skin the instant they are born and the government, of course, can trace are whereabouts by our cell phones.  Some convenience stores have signs over the lottery tickets that say the premises are under recorded surveillance but I don’t believe it.  I think the sign is just for show.  Fake cameras with no film.  Scare tactics so you don’t stick-up the joint. And out of human compassion, they offer an 800 number to call if you think you have a gambling problem.  So, in summer I put on more clothes for the convenience store and in winter I take off my warm head and facial gear to cash my checks.  I love how the world dictates how I should dress.  It’s nice that there are dress codes that are designed, in essence, to protect us from harm and health hazards and signs everywhere, when to slow down, when to inform us deaf children are at play, when to beware of dogs, when the seedy hotel, indeed, has a vacancy.

 

The fancy-schmancy restaurants dictate that I wear the appropriate attire and in the olden days they had spare crass sport jackets for men who came ill suited (get it) for dinner.  I went out to a restaurant for my birthday, not my real birthday but my family birthday, and printed in bold letters on the menu was a directive that I should tell my server if I had any peanut allergies.  I was curious why it was linguistically phrased as though one could have more than one peanut allergy.  I called the waitress over and excused myself but said shouldn’t the menu say “a” peanut allergy because I was confused how a person could have more than one peanut allergy and she asked if I was telling her that I had a peanut allergy and I told her I didn’t, that it was a grammar, not a peanut, issue.  When I was a kid, no one used to have peanut allergies but now it’s swelled to epidemic proportions.  And every other person must be Glutton Free.  What happened?  A sore leg is now a stress fracture and being lazy and disinterested is an Attention Deficit Disorder.  There used to be no such thing as anxiety or depression; you were just blue, down in the dumps.  There must be something to this modernization of naming things.  In fact, it’s poetic, as poetry was originally “the naming of things”.  I learned that from my poetry teacher way back.  Our society is becoming more poetic.  Yeah!  So the waitress blinked multiple times, overly dramatic, as though she wanted her eyelashes to inform me I was being a dope.  She told our table she’d be back to take our drink orders in a minute.  It’s nice that they don’t want folks unknowingly consuming stuff that would make their throats swell, turn their faces bright red and make them gasp for oxygen during their meals but what if you don’t know about your peanut allergy until you consume peanuts in their restaurant.  So much in life is nobody’s fault.  I won’t even go into the fact that for some reason, on the back page, it says I should tell my server if I am lactose intolerant or to inform the manager if I require special service.  I always want special service; that’s the idea.  At the finer restaurants the servers don’t wear name tags.  I guess they figure you don’t care about the plebian’s name or that the patrons are smart enough to remember the server’s name when they introduce themselves.  On the drive home, I notice there are no more stationary billboards only electronic gizmos that change their messages every twenty seconds and traffic signs that alert us on the highway about delays and accidents and there are Amber alerts for kidnapped children. I want to know less, not more.  That’s what I want.

 

When I was a kid, not that I believed in God or anything, but churches were serious places, no sense of humor or fucking around.  Now the clergy try to be clever, comedic in a way that might guilt you into attending services with signs like: “I don’t know why some people change churches; what difference does it make which one you stay home from?” or “There are some questions that can’t be answered by Google,” or my favorite slogan, cloaked in Anti-Semitism: “Christmas: easier to spell than Hanukkah.”   I guess all the clergymen got together at some convention when they experienced a major drop-off in church goers and said we need a new strategic plan, a marketing brand.  Comedy works and maybe we should be more inclusive while we’re at it.  Nah, just kidding…I wonder if the banks will succumb to comedy to make would-be robber chuckle and decide not the stick-up the joint.  Smile: You’re on Candid Camera; We Can Use This Same Photo for Your Mug Shot! People don’t take things seriously enough anymore, but then again we don’t really have stuff like the Black Plague and Leprosy and Concentration Camps but in their stead we do have unstable, unemployed college drop-outs who live in their parents’ basements and gun down children and entire populations without clean drinking water and a world that makes it illegal for people who love each other to be legally married.  And let’s not forget suicide bombers and doomsday anti-government preppers.  Maybe they know something.

 

I love those stories of love letters written by a lovesick teenage draftee in a foxhole during a war that never reached the intended person and shows up half a century later, having been accumulating dust in some dead letter bin.  The Post Office makes a valiant effort to deliver it, news station cover the event, cameras galore, but alas, the woman is usually long dead and the story evolves into the fantasy of unrequited romanticism.  We want to believe such rare love still exists.  We want to believe the written word has that power over us.  The woman leaves for a short errand and never returns to her Paris apartment so the mail carrier returns the next day with the letter to nobody home and a half century latter some great granddaughter inherits the dusty, untouched farm house and enters it and finds a primitive Van Gogh and handmade toys from Germany and first editions of the Great Russian novelists.  On the door was a hastily scribbled sign: “Back in an hour”.  I guess the ultimate sign is that which one wants etched on his gravestone. My poetry teacher, on his deathbed, whispered to me what he wanted: Never Mind.  I guess that sums up life with an exclamation point and makes people realize you can develop a sense of humor even after you’re dead.

Guest Blog Post, Anthony Varallo: SPACE, DOUBLE SPACE

Anthony E VaralloHow many spaces after a period, one or two?  Space or double space?  If you’re like me, old enough to remember typing your first research papers on your parents’ IBM Selectric, —ancient, even then, but thrilling nonetheless, the way the letters jumped from a center ball that spun and rotated across the page—then you probably prefer two spaces, even though, as you are becoming increasingly aware, typeset pages, like the ones you see in nearly every print publication of every kind, from the smallest circulation literary magazine to The New York Times, use a single space.  Only.  There is, as you must reluctantly admit, no such thing as double-spacing in print publication.  A single space presides after every period.  A space no different than the one after a comma or semi-colon.  Yes, you know this; still, you use two spaces after each period.  Why?

Because you took a typing class in seventh grade, for starters.  The class met in a room fitted out with twenty manual typewriters resting atop twenty desks, the typewriters wearing a vinyl cover that could only be removed upon the instructor’s permission and, at the end of each session, carefully replaced, requiring you to position the typewriter’s carriage just so.  The instructor was old, even by seventh grade teacher standards, and his voice shook as he called out the sentences you were to type, including—and this seems important—the spaces after each punctuation mark.  Comma, space.  Period, double space.  The sound of twenty space bars double-spacing: a basketball dribbled twice.  Failure to double space, a red instructor’s mark, a lower grade.

Because, in college, you upgraded to a portable word processor, heavy as a packed suitcase, but light enough to carry to the dorm lounge whenever your roommate had a visitor.  The word processor stored your papers—documents, you began calling them, without quite realizing it—on disks, enabling you to save your work for later, the words on the page and yet not on the page, either, since you hadn’t printed them out yet, a new phrase to put alongside documents.  Still, you wrote those words as if they would be printed out, because that’s what words aspired to, you began to realize, to be part of sentences to be printed out, and those sentences needed a punctuation mark at the end with two spaces after to give them their proper due.  A pause.  Breathing room.  Authority.

Because, right after you traded in your portable word processor—that old thing!—for your first personal computer, you began writing short stories, and sentences suddenly seemed something larger than words on a page; they became individual brushstrokes on a canvas framed by top, bottom, right and left margins.  Something to take time on, to linger upon, even for hours, as you did, drinking coffee late into the night.  A sentence was a slow-born thing, you began to understand, and to finish one was a kind of honor, one that required a double space, as if to say, There, done, yes, made it, now it is so.  The double space sent the cursor more forcefully into the blank page, to better accompany your mind, which suddenly had no idea how it had ever written a good sentence in the first place.  For each sentence completed only sent you into the next sentence to be completed, where all the old challenges cropped up again—word choice, tone, grammar, syntax, style, clarity, coherence, precision—the completed sentence offering no clues where the next was to follow.  Every sentence is a solo act.  A truth the double space only wished you to know better.  A truth a single space would rather you never learn.

Because you have tried using a single space, even though you won’t admit it.  A phase that only lasted a few months or so, right around the time you started noticing that your students, born in the era when you traded the word processor for the PC, used a single space after periods.  So you tried, for the sake of keeping up, for the sake of growing and changing, for the sake of not suffering potential embarrassment, always important to you.  You single-spaced after each period.  A feeling like walking on one foot.  Like looking left, right, but not left again.  Like parking bumper to bumper in a crowded lot.  You couldn’t get the hang of it, so back to double-spacing you went, and where you have stayed.  You can’t help it: you like the world a little bit better with double-spacing in it.

But what to do now?  You have two children, and they both use computers, both like writing stories and jokes; sometimes even a screenplay, which they film with their iPods.  Sometimes they need your help spelling certain words, help you are happy to give.  You stand beside them as they type the word and reach the end of the sentence.  You hold your breath after they type the period.  The cursor blinks.  Your children hesitate, about to ask another question.  Space or double space?

Guest Blog Post, George Estreich: Americano

George Estreich, poet and author of "The Shape of the Eye"

George Estreich, poet and author of “The Shape of the Eye”

In July of 2008, the year I lived in Melbourne with my family, Starbucks responded to the economic crisis by shuttering hundreds of stores worldwide. In the letters section of The Age, Melbourne’s newspaper of record, the event registered as a triumph over an uncouth invader:

 

Good riddance, Starbucks, take your awful coffee and go back to the rat hole you came from.

            Matt Smith, Beaumaris.

 

And (huffily), under the headline “A win for good taste”:

 

Finally, the Australian public has resisted the temptation to mimic and Americanise our lives, by rejecting the Starbucks coffee model. When you consider that the average good (Italian) coffee outlet in Melbourne will charge roughly $3 for a great coffee that will be brought to your table in a china cup, why on earth would people want to pay roughly double for an average coffee, often with a fancy name, in a cardboard cup, that you have to line up for, with no service?

We are to be congratulated.

            Steven Rose, Caulfield

*

            Seven months earlier, as we prepared to leave Oregon for my wife’s sabbatical year, I’d sworn never to visit an Australian Starbucks. Why travel to a new shore, then turn your back on the continent? Why open new vistas, then shut your eyes? At the same time, I hadn’t sworn off coffee, which I need in order to avoid headaches, write clearly, and stabilize my moods. But after we arrived in Melbourne, I could not find coffee anywhere. It was only one of a long list of absences, including familiar faces, Mexican food, and rain. (To move from the Pacific Northwest in winter to a Victorian summer, from a dank, rainy perma-twilight to a surfeit of sun, is as dramatic a shift as you can make in the First World.)

I ventured into non-corporate coffee shops on Chapel Street and Swanston Street and Glenferrie Road, ready with my colorful Australian money, and asked for a cup of coffee.

What kind of coffee?

            Well…coffee.

            (Delicately.) Espresso, macchiato, cappuccino…?

Drip coffee, at least outside Starbucks, does not exist in Melbourne. The closest thing to it is what Starbucks calls “Americano,” and what Australians call a “long black.” Sometimes you can get coffee made with a French press. Once, in a Gloria Jean’s, I ordered the French Press Coffee of the Day. From the hasty conference behind the counter, I gathered that the Coffee of the Day flavor would have to be identified, and the French press would have to be located and dusted off. Eventually something smelling of burned hazelnuts appeared in a paper cup.

The brief, confused conversations I had with baristas, in early January, seemed part of a seamless web of disorientation and confusion. It included the black light that evidently flashed on above my head whenever I opened my mouth, or the awkward tack-left-tack-right stutter-step that happened every ten steps on crowded city sidewalks, where we had to remember to walk on the left side. It is, I suppose, that disorientation that we went there to find, in order to recover from it.

The absence of coffee felt like the absence of a personal history. I had grown up with the smell of burned coffee in a two-stage aluminum pot (you poured boiling water in the top, and it sank through a perforated basket full of Maxwell House grounds, producing a dark ichor, whose liquid remainder thickened and burned above a low flame all Saturday morning); I had drunk gallons of watery diner refills as a teenager, while out late avoiding the house; for years after I was married, I made double-strength Folger’s in the Braun coffeemaker given as a wedding gift; and then I learned, after moving to the Pacific Northwest, that coffee was not only too precious for free refills, but that it had its own vocabulary of aroma and taste and provenance, like wine for the productive. As a newcomer to Cascadia, I came to have preferences. When at home, I drank fair-trade organic French Roast Sumatra delivered to the local food co-op by bicycle, though none of these qualities were as important to me as its raw strength. I like coffee, I like the taste of it, and I prefer it to be fairly traded, but the truth is that it’s always been about the milligrams. Which is how I came to spend hundreds of dollars a year at Starbucks for something I once thought too bitter to consume.

Writers need rituals, a way to make the world recede. Over the years in the Northwest, writing in Starbucks had become my ritual, the habit that enclosed the habit. I’d park myself by an outlet, plug in the laptop, and write for most of the morning. It was comfortable—that carefully crafted “third space,” neither home nor work, was a good fit for a writer without a job—and over the years, as the price of a grande house ticked upward, the comfort began to feel necessary. That third space is designed to be ignored, to be pleasant, unobtrusive, a dependable nowhere. Glancing around, I saw that most other customers were living in third spaces of their own, texting, surfing the net, looking at Windows or out through windows. I was no different; an unfinished manuscript is a third space too. You spend hours there, or years, but you don’t live there, and you hope to leave as soon as you can.

In Melbourne, ignoring our surroundings was not an option. The least detail demanded attention. Which tram do we take? Where can I find coffee? Why does that big cemetery have a banner announcing a website? What does “Bob’s your uncle” mean? In response, we kept our eyes and ears open, asked questions, and reconstituted a version of home. In our beige rented apartment, we slept on mattresses on the floor and covered cardboard boxes with fabric to make nightstands. Our desk was a card table in a corner of the living/dining area. We didn’t own a car; we got around on trams and commuter trains, which not only made us feel virtuous, but also made the rare car ride seem futuristic in its velocity. I joked about selling carbon credits to friends with SUVs, but our plane flights to, from, and within the continent ensured that our carbon footprint was probably less dainty than thunderous. From the atmosphere’s perspective, we were stomping around in clown shoes.

We had translated our life into Australian, and like Australian English, it was both comprehensible and different in every syllable. We had debit cards (called “EFTPOS”), cell phones (“mobiles”), my daughters attended school (in uniforms), my wife worked in a lab (but did not teach), and I cooked, hung out with the kids after school, and revised my manuscript (but not in Starbucks).

*

            Whenever I told anyone we were moving to Australia, I was quick to note that we were lucky. We were lucky. I was determined to make the best of that luck, so I began to drink coffee that was good (Italian). I developed a taste for cappuccino.

The presence of cappuccino, macchiato, espresso et al in Melbourne is not the result of a corporate marketing plan. Nor is it a recent trend. Coffee that is good (Italian) exists in Melbourne because Melbourne has Italians, who migrated to Australia and brought their coffee with them. Melbourne is often described as a “cosmopolitan” or “European” city, and in coffee is the bitter essence of that Europeanness. This, perhaps, is the source of the Melbournian reaction to Starbucks: with its ridiculous names, its grandes and ventis and Frappuccinos, the stores were one more visible reminder of Americans taking over and ruining everything authentic and good.

Leaving friends and family for a year is hard; adjusting to a new culture is hard; uncertainty, in general, is hard. Learning to drink cappuccino is easy. It is possibly the easiest expatriate adjustment on record. In Mr. Tulk (the cafe at the State Library, named for its first librarian); in Brown’s, the bakery/cafe I’d go to with my daughters every Thursday after school; at a shivery outdoor picnic table at the Collingwood Children’s Farm; in a dozen other places I walked into because I’d read about them, or just because I was curious, I learned, somehow, to cope. The cappuccino was good.

            It was always gone too soon. The bladder-straining Grande Paper Vat was now a memory, and the quality of Australian coffee (excellent) and the quantity (less than ginormous) were instructive. I was reading a lot of Michael Pollan in those days, and the cappuccino seemed part of a sensibly Australian approach to food. The portions were reasonable, not huge. Even at McDonald’s—I hadn’t sworn off McDonald’s, a practical parent never surrenders a useful bribe–a large soda was maybe sixteen ounces, not thirty-two. Also, the refills weren’t free. The middle of Australia is spinifex-filled desert, not corn, so you also paid for packets of ketchup, and for soda refills. From across the equator, I was coming to see America as the Land of Free-Flowing Corn Syrup, where you could have as much as you wanted of whatever was profoundly bad for you.

Now and then, walking up Swanston Street to the State Library, I’d pass the open door of Starbucks. It smelled exactly like home. But then, so did the Lush, which smelled exactly like its counterpart in Portland; and, for that matter, so did the McDonald’s (“Macca’s”), or the Burger King (“Hungry Jack’s”). All seemed to have drilled a pipeline of memory from Australia to America, and whenever the fragrance of Chicken McNuggets or Pike Place Roast wafted out on refrigerated air, I experienced a swell of false nostalgia. Of course, it was not place I remembered, but displacement, a familiar nowhere, precise, predictable, franchised. I walked on.

The cappuccino did come in a china cup. You sat and drank it, and when it was gone, you left. In an American Starbucks, customers tend to either rush off with to-go cups or loiter for hours over laptops. In Australia, these extremes were harder to find. To-go cups were unusual, and we never saw anyone with coffee on a tram. In these practices were an echo of teatime, which in Theresa’s lab was mandatory. No conversation about work allowed. No drinking tea at your desk. You stop what you’re doing and have tea. It was one of the many reminders that though Australia and the United States had their origins in a single empire, they were traveling on very different vectors.

The cappuccino was very, very good. It was good (Italian); it was good (Australian); it was good (Melbournian). But it was, emphatically, not American.

*

            Reading the letters to The Age—“good riddance, Starbucks”–I experienced an odd flicker of patriotism. Since arriving from the Superpower Rat Hole I was born to, I had been bumping up against my foreignness. I was the one with the accent. I was, for better or worse, the representative of a clueless superpower. And while I found, as many have, that Australians are extraordinarily generous and kind and open, there was also a sort of unexpected ironic reserve, a skepticism, not accurately represented in the commercials for Outback Steakhouse. No one ever told us to go back to the rat hole we came from, but Theresa, at work, was asked in all seriousness if she carried a handgun back home, and I was asked more than once (in a tone of hopeful absolution) if I might perhaps be from Canada.

Because we made friends over the year, because we attended school plays and soccer games and visited places like Merimbula, where American tourists rarely go, we came to see that this attitude was far from rigid. Australians always seemed happy to be proved wrong about Americans. We were not necessarily assumed to be gun-toting, Palin-supporting, Frappuccino-swilling rats, but there was a tone of relief when we turned out not to be. This relief became general in Australia at about 2:30 p.m. on November 4th, when it became clear that America would have a President who was black and Democratic–and a Vice-President who was not Alaskan–and from that day on until we left in late December, the mood was palpably different. There was hope for us, after all. On the day Obama was elected, Laura’s bus driver was in tears, she was so happy, and Theresa’s lab stopped work for the afternoon. Instead of teatime, they had champagne.

*

            Five years later, I feel less inspired than disappointed. The hopes attending Obama’s arrival don’t change the facts of climate. We live in the Anthropocene now, and one peculiar fact of our manmade era is that it is all too comprehensible. Ice melts, the temperature goes up, the species go extinct, the birds’ ranges alter, and the CO2 continues to accumulate. We know what we need to know, and we know that we know it. To have this kind of awareness is to feel less certain about ordinary life. Its solidity shimmers, as if seen through the fumes rising from a gas can. We are compromised Zen masters, enlightened but culpable: the world is impermanent, and it’s all our fault.

To live in Victoria in 2008 was to feel large-scale climate change, in a way western Oregon does not usually allow. Though the blazing heat wave that welcomed us to Melbourne was weather, the eleven-year drought in Victoria was something else again. By the time we arrived, that drought was simply the new normal. The climate had changed. The signs were everywhere, in water restrictions, in the black pipes sticking up from the bases of trees, in patchy cricket grounds, in news reports about irrigation conflicts and the Murray River turning to acid. On February 7, 2009, about a month after we got back home, days of record temperatures and wind prepared the way for the Black Saturday bushfires. Marysville, northeast of Melbourne, was completely incinerated. Thirty-four people died in Marysville alone, one hundred and seventy-three altogether. The smoke cloud was visible from space.

We’d driven through Marysville on our way to Healesville Animal Sanctuary, where my younger daughter, who’d once been terrified by a wallaby hopping through a campsite in New South Wales, successfully petted a kangaroo. I remembered Marysville as one of dozens of tidy, friendly Australian towns, with an Australia Post, an op shop (thrift store: “op” is short for “opportunity”), a few restaurants, a few stores for tourists. Online, you can find photos before and after the fire. The photos before the event correspond to memory, the photos after do not. The aerial photos show an apocalyptic plat map. At ground level, it seems as if color itself has been burned away. Our connection to the tragedy is so slight, it is almost obscene to mention it, except that disasters of that scale are becoming more likely as the world warms, and our chances of escaping them, or avoiding them by travel, are decreasing.

We live in the shadow of unimaginable numbers, the sum of our routines. We drive to Starbucks, because it is raining; we fly to Australia, because we want a change; we take the tram to the State Library and sit in the Australiana Room, the light filtering from a high window, because we want to write about a life. These acts consume energy, and while individually trivial, they are significant in the aggregate. Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist and author of The Weather Makers, explains the “telekinetic” nature of the atmosphere: wherever the carbon comes from, it quickly distributes throughout the system. Whether it’s the black Land Rover wedging itself into a Chadstone Shopping Centre parking space, the hunter green Outback pulling up to a Trader Joe’s, or the Prius in the Starbucks drive-through, each of us contributes our parts per million. Our routines produce the crisis, but the crisis also threatens our routines.

*

            When we came back to America, I decided to buy a new coffeemaker. Even after two weeks back in the States, it seemed as if the year abroad was already dissolving. We blinked and returned to the same house, in the same Northwest winter, except our children’s friends were suddenly taller. We stepped outside the bubble for a year, and the bubble welcomed us back. It was eerie: I felt too settled in, as if the trip had not happened. As if some part of me, altered by the trip abroad, refused to root and flourish. Perhaps that dislocation was my way of honoring the fact of the year away.

So I drove to the Fred Meyer store and bought a new Black and Decker coffeemaker, which, when I plugged it in and filled the filter basket with fresh-ground bicycle-delivered organic beans, produced four cups of watery swill. I drove back and returned it, then drove to the ARC on 10th and Beca and found a used Mr. Coffee brand coffeemaker/cappuccino maker for eight dollars. It was so old, its instruction manual did not even list a website. The manual was precisely written, by someone who clearly cared about espresso (the proper grind was “like salt, or sand”); but strikingly, it was written, in English, and not composed of generic, globalization-friendly icons. (These are handy, if you want to sell an appliance in eighty different countries; but they are limited. You can show someone a generic hand filling a carafe with water; you can demonstrate the concept of “plugging in”; you can show not doing something, or rudimentary concepts like “hot” or “shocky” or “ouch”; but you cannot, without words, demonstrate the proper fineness of an espresso grind.)

It took awhile to get the cappuccino maker part to work, but it works. The coffeemaker part works too, but most mornings I make cappuccino; it reminds me of another home. As for Starbucks, I don’t go there as much as I used to. The book I was writing is done, and it’s quieter at my desk.

Guest Blog Post, Courtney Mauk: The Space Between

Mauk photo 1Confession: This is the first thing I’ve written in over three weeks.

In the past I might have gotten depressed over a lull in my work, but I’ve come to understand that these quiet moments (a more gentle and accurate term than lazy or uninspired) can be as essential to the writing process as those “butt in the chair” days.

Sometimes lulls are due to outside demands—after all, none of us are writers only and occasionally other responsibilities can, and should, take priority. At other times lulls are self-imposed, a clearing out of the system. Recently I had a student who threw herself into the creation of a character, entering that beautiful, agonizing manic state where she could not stop thinking about, and as, her character. When she finished her story, she felt she should get started on the next one, but thinking about other characters felt like a betrayal. She needed to take time off in order to say good-bye, reset, and begin again.

My current lull hasn’t been entirely circumstantial, nor entirely by choice. After spending five feverish months working on the first draft of a novel, I sent it off to my group of trusted readers with the intention of using the weeks before meeting with them on revising short stories. But we meet tonight, and those story files have remained closed. Unlike my student, I didn’t feel like I was betraying anyone. Inspiration just never struck—maybe I could have forced it, but I didn’t feel inclined to try. Instead I used the hours I usually spend writing in the park, reading a book that had been in my to-be-read pile for far too long and taking occasional breaks to watch the people sitting near me, the others rushing past. Another morning I wandered around one of my favorite parts of the city and bought the season’s first strawberries at the farmers market (those berries made me so happy, I texted my husband immediately and used more than my allotted exclamation points). One afternoon I walked through an area I’d never explored before, even though it runs right into my neighborhood, and reveled in its gritty beauty. I left my cellphone at home and paid no attention to the time. As I walked, I found myself taking deep breaths; I went way beyond the point where I thought I would turn back.

A lull doesn’t have to be a source of frustration or guilt; it isn’t a void, whether it lasts days, weeks, months, or even years. What it means is you’ve take a moment to step outside your own head and live your life. For writers, imagination is our greatest resource; we are compelled by the worlds we create and that’s why we struggle so to capture them in words. But every now and again, it can be helpful to step away from the computer screen, close the notebook, get your butt out of the chair, and look around, to let your imagination reset, open, and begin again.

My yoga teacher encourages us to observe the space between our breaths. It takes a conscious effort to notice and appreciate something so unconscious. But that space is there—that stillness, as essential as the inhale and the exhale, holding us and letting us go on living.

You can learn more about Courtney at her website: www.courtneymauk.com