So I have a website…

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I have a few, in fact. Sometimes I forget about them for, um, years, and then remember that I used to put my thoughts down on the page over here. Sometimes it’s difficult to want to write about my life. For a few years, I’ve been mulling over the fact that a few things that seemed eternally hopeful about life just — aren’t.

I’ve been reaching to Buddhism lately to fold in a lot of what’s going on around me.

A few weeks ago, at 2 AM on a quiet Sunday morning while I was asleep, 49 people five miles away from my bedroom were murdered. How do you fold that into life as if it’s ordinary?

Dave and I had a few tough discussions about it. I felt anguished, and said that it was hard to see my way to hope about our family, the future, the world, when horrific events happen in our very neighborhood. My first reaction to the shooting was that I wanted to hole up in my house, never let my kid out of my sight, and build a wall around us so that we’d always be safe.

“This is not isolated,” Dave said gently. “This is reality. This is reality for most of the world’s population. They have to get up and go on living no matter what might happen to them, and so do we.”

A tough lesson, but a true one. I’m still folding it into my heart, though, and into my head. Sometimes, after a beer or two, when I feel relaxed, I realize just how close to tears I am — at life, at the unbearable danger of it, the inevitable reality that we all shut down, close up, stop interacting with the world, and, well, die.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates Buddhist scripture as saying:

“Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the beloved is stressful, separation from the beloved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful.”

When a huge, horrific situation happens, it’s an immediate reminder that all of the things in life that are impermanent are exactly that — impermanent. So what can we do about it?

The first of the four noble truths is just saying, “Now that I’m alive, everything is definitely going to make me suffer.” Things that can cause you to suffer and change and think and process will absolutely make you do these things. It’s ridiculous to think that the phrase “happily ever after” exists, and it’s only in our imagination and dreams that it does. This isn’t pessimism so much as realism. Life is not fixed and forever, things are actively falling apart, entropy wins every time.

The second and third Noble Truths say that because we accidentally think of impermanent things as permanent, we cling to them and expect them to be around forever, and they inevitably hurt us when they aren’t. All that’s necessary is to remember that this thing we cling to, we’ve already lost. Be realistic about life, and the things you’ve been clinging to can be given up more easily.

OK, not really, because there are things that it’s impossible to not cling to. I guess this makes detachment the work of a lifetime, or a few of them.

That last noble truth actually branches into eight — a plan for how to live so that we can better handle life. The philosophy is called the eight-fold path, but I think that the most interesting part of it is the seventh step, mindfulness (Sati is the word for it in Pali; Smriti in Sanskrit).

It means accepting life as it is now, rather than the way we think it should be. 49 people were murdered near my house on a quiet Sunday morning at 2 AM. This is a part of the fabric of reality now. So I’m going to try to focus on the moment.

I am here in this world right now, and maybe focusing on what I still have will help me take better care of it.

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House-owning n00b

Look, it’s my dirty garage, just as the contractor abandoned it!

I moved around so often growing up that as an adult I’m still not certain what it means to own a home. We have our share of issues to contend with still (like argh, the plumbing CONTINUES TO LEAK), but I’m slowly beginning to realize that I can do whatever I like to it. How liberating to imagine that I could paint the whole thing bright magenta if I want, and nobody could say no. (Except future purchasers. They might say no.)

A month ago, I decided to give up on waiting for a certain AWOL contractor to resume his job (picture above) and clean the garage. This snowballed from a weekend of garage cleaning (results below) into “wow, this space can be used for household projects” to “hey let’s paint this inherited piece of furniture.”

I’ve learned so much in the process. I’ve never painted furniture before, and my family helped me figure out wood and primer and various coats of paint. Then a woman at the art store gave me a swift and practical lesson on making stencils with acetate, and suddenly we had a cute item of furniture for my daughter’s room.

I see how it is, home ownership. It’s addictive because it lets me nest more easily. If I’m not careful, I suspect I’ll start sticking seasonal wreaths on my front door.

Anyway. Here is a photo essay of my path from dirty garage to clean furniture.

At the beginning of the month, I gave up hoping that the contractor would return, and spent several hours mucking out the garage. Suddenly it became clean and empty. “We could even…fit a car in here, or something,” Dave said.

My mom prodded me mercilessly about this painting project until we actually did it (she knows that my usual household project path is deep procrastination), in my AWESOMELY CLEAN garage.

With everyone’s help, we finished three coats of white paint before breakfast one morning. It’s amazing how easy it was to paint something. I never knew.

Late Saturday night, my daughter and I did this. Stencils were a bit harder. I admit that I became a perfectionist about them. My daughter sighed at me a lot.

Somehow we finished it (with a small trip to Lowe’s to more firmly anchor the hutch). But look, it’s awesome, and neatly covers up the floor ruined by our leaky plumbing! And yes, that’s next on the agenda…

So We Went to St. Petersburg (Part Two)

La Segunda Bakery

In the time since my last post (So We Went to St. Petersburg [Part One]), someone mentioned to me that the Hotel Indigo is haunted. I poked around the internet and found out that the hotel used to be a hospital. It is purportedly haunted by a little girl who died of polio, and a man in a wheelchair who haunts the lobby. I saw none of the ghosts, but Thai family lore says that we’re protected by too many angels to be successfully haunted…

On the middle day of our trip we took a break from St. Petersburg and headed to Tampa. We went because we are food geeks, and wanted to find a Cuban sandwich that was as good as the ones we used to eat at Kool Korner in Atlanta. If any place in the world has good Cubans, we reasoned, it should be Tampa (or perhaps Miami, but we weren’t anywhere near Miami)!

On UrbanSpoon we found La Segunda bakery, which has existed in the same neighborhood of Tampa since the turn of the 20th century. The neighborhood is a bit on the scruffy side nowadays, but the second we stepped inside we realized we were on the right track.

It was packed, an excellent sign. We got our number (just like at the DMV) and stood waiting for fifteen minutes while people walked in and out with long bags of Cuban bread, boxes of pastries, and thin-pressed sandwiches. I watched one woman pause at the door, throw away all the extra bread packaging, and dig right in.

We ate the sandwiches in our car in front of the shop, with the sauce dripping down our fingers and the Florida heat making us sweat buckets. We had it with strong, tall-poured café Cubano, with guava-cheese pastries for dessert. It was grand. The Cuban was not as good as Kool Korner, but still tasty.

Dave’s dad mentioned to us that Ybor City was worth visiting. After imbibing our Cubans we went for a sweaty walk down the long row of old storefronts that make up the center of Cuban history in Tampa. The streets were lined with cigar shops and bars and historic places. I caught snippets of stories as I walked, especially enjoying the tale of the Italian-born Cuban revolutionary (photo below). Now the corner where the revolutionaries met to caters to tourists.

Dave bought a cigar from a friendly gentleman who said that he’s got a cigar cutter chained to his garage. “The whole neighborhood stops by when they need to trim their cigars,” he said. Dave bought the cigar cutter too.

The cigar shops of Ybor

After a long wander through Tampa (including a stop to browse through Mojo Books and Music, one of a rare breed of Florida’s small used bookstores), it was time to return to St. Petersburg for one last drink. Also on UrbanSpoon we found The Ale and the Witch, a low-key but honest bar that reminded me of the brewpubs of Portland, but with much more sunlight. I had something I’d never tried before, a Belgian Ale that was dark with no bite at all and a mocha aftertaste — heck if I can remember the name, it wasn’t my usual Omegang. (…Darn, this will bother me.)

Then a band began to play Grateful Dead covers, and it was time to head back to the hotel.

We had no haunting on our last night, but I really missed the morning wake-up cat and child. It was time to head back home! All-in-all, I think I should plan more of these anniversary things. Apparently advanced planning means that we get to have a nice time together – imagine!

One last drink!

So We Went to St. Petersburg (Part One)

The cultural mood surrounding our 11th anniversary trip to St. Petersburg was actually one of national gloom and rage. The morning that we left, a quick skim of my Facebook statuses showed that half my friends were still interested in boycotting Florida due to the verdict of the Trayvon Martin trial. In fact, walking the streets of St. Petersburg, we came upon a church group peacefully rallying in front of the little town hall. “JUSTICE –” cried a woman. “NOW,” cried the crowd. We paused a moment in respect, and then walked slowly past.

We were no longer in Orlando, but on the West Coast. I chose St. Petersburg for our anniversary trip because it had a lot of what Dave and I like to do: see art, browse bookstores, walk, talk and eat good food.

Hotel Indigo

If I could personify St. Petersburg, I’d draw it as an antebellum lady standing with her parasol on the deck of a riverboat. The whole town felt like it was meant for a leisurely Victorian “taking of the waters,” with a quaint bay full of miniature yachts and an ancient hotel hovering across the curved bay park from the Salvador Dali museum.

“Where is the money coming from that funds this town?” I asked Dave, noticing how well-kept everything seemed, right down to the carefully manicured parks and the row of museums.

“Well. There’s a BB&T headquarters and a small college in this town. Chihuly has a glassworks here. It’s coming from somewhere.”

We did a bit of urban exploration in the old Victorian hotel, forcing a door open and finding a wide patio overlooking the bay. It was empty and smelled of old wood and sea air. “It needs those rocking chairs from The Shining, and it would be perfect.”

Dali museum and Chiang Mai Thai

The town’s art didn’t disappoint us, nor did the food. We were both immediately overstimulated by Dali. His most famous work, the Persistence of Memory (the one with the melting clocks), was a tiny picture that I walked right past in favor of a work that dominated a far wall. Seeing Dali was like stepping from Orlando into a vivid and crowded nightmare.

We caught with relief on symbols, repetitive motifs. “Oh, he’s a Freudian,” I said, after reading a sign. Then we saw penises everywhere, along with locusts, crosses, and cello after cello echoing the curve of Mrs. Dali’s waist.

After a few hours we rested, leaning over a railing and watching little boats circle in the bay. “There must be a little sailing school,” Dave said. We dreamed of coming for a week and enrolling Alba.

Thank goodness for Urban Spoon. After all that surrealism I needed home cookin’, so Dave found me the best Thai restaurant in town. Chiang Mai Thai was a bit of a walk from our hotel, but it had excellent fusion American/Thai food. “This is not authentic,” the waitress (who was from the Northeast of Thailand) said to me, after learning that my mother is Thai. “Trust me, go for the Yum Nua (steak salad), but not the papaya.”

We trusted her, and the Yum Nua was indeed authentic, but the more fusion-y food was good too. We had an interesting dish of VERY non-Thai tempura eggplant in peanut sauce, and some super-amazingly-soft duck. The cooking even pleased Dave, who (as a former cook) has some high standards. (“It has to be better than what I cook at home.”)

Chihuly collection at the Morean Arts Center

The next day, we saw more art. Chihuly featured vaguely in my memory as a guy who did neat stuff with glass, but I didn’t know much about him. He made pointy things, and round things, and put them in natural settings. We watched a film about some of his installations, and indeed, he used glass to both highlight natural beauty and make people think about nature. His glass wasn’t flat or square, it was anything but. The most interesting part of the exhibit for me was watching how the glass was made. None of it was an individual effort — all of it was produced by a team, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s factory.

I wish I’d seen Chihuly’s installations made of ice and neon, but instead, my favorite part of the exhibit was a boat carrying enormous and lovely glass balls, floating in a sea of black like the night sky. “I feel like it’s a boat full of planets,” I said to Dave. “Rowed by some crazy god, distributing them through the universe.”

“Alba would like this, as long as we duct-tape her hands to her sides.”

Glass everywhere, you know.

[Read Part Two!]

Saturday browsing

How to be a successful writer and mom? Apparently the secret is to have only one kid. I’m not sure that I buy this yet, but it seems to have worked for my four parents.

Or, Joyce Carol Oates writes, you can always just have sex with a publisher.

But success, at working or being a mom or both, is always a blessing that can be taken away by illness. How do people define success during and after illness?

Perhaps the best thing to do is have no ambitions at all