Archive for the 'Curiousity' Category

Dreaming about houses and water.

I have two recurring dreams.

Or, not so much recurring dreams so much as recurring themes in my dreams. The first is houses and the second is water.

I have had two kinds of recurring house dreams. The first I don’t have anymore, but did for a while. Those are what I called, in my head, the “big cool house with something wrong inside it” dreams.

The name (paraphrased from a song in the musical The Secret Garden) pretty much says it all. In those dreams, I was visiting or living in a house. It was usually big and interesting and I liked things about it, but there was something wrong with it that prevented it from being the great house it could otherwise be. The “something wrong” was never anything as concrete as a ghost in the attic or a zombie in the basement, and I never encountered it directly, though sometimes I think I knew where it was located: maybe underground or in a dark wing of the house. It was just something that felt wrong—moldy, unwholesome, malevolent. Those dreams were unpleasant, and I woke up feeling bad.

I still have the second type of house dream, and it’s not scary at all.

In these dreams, I’m either looking for a new place to live or I’ve just moved into a new place. I almost always like the new house or apartment and the neighborhood I’m looking in quite in a bit. Occasionally I’m looking but it is too hard to find an apartment, because the neighborhood is too expensive or there are too few vacancies. Usually my new or prospective home is in a city, but once it was on a long strip of land beside some blue water at the edge of a city, and recently it was in a small green college town. My dream dwellings are never in a place that actually exists, and even during the dream, I often wonder why I’ve overlooked living there before.

Unlike the other kind of house dream, I don’t wake up from these dreams upset, just a little wistful.

My water dreams aren’t as narratively coherent as my house dreams. The water–a nice play to swim with pools of clear blue water–is more of a recurring image. The landscape tends to be brown or yellow, not lush green like in the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes in my dream, I remember visiting the water but I either can’t find it again or I don’t have time.

I love swimming in my waking life, and I’ve been to a few places that come pretty close to my dream swimming hole: some hot springs outside Mammoth, California; parts of Pedernales State Park and Barton Creek in Texas; some caves with a stream running through in New Zealand. (The cave that the pirate ship is in at the end of Goonies also comes to mind.) But it’s never quite right.

Lencois Maranhenses

Lately I’ve been brainstorming for my next vacation and I’ve been thinking about trying find a place with water like in my dreams. I just saw a picture of a place called Lencois Maranhenses in Brazil. It looks like a desert but it gets flooded during the rainy season, creating fresh-water lagoons. I think it looks amazing but I’m not sure I can convince my husband to accompany me on a weird pilgrimage to a remote corner of Brazil where there is nothing to do but wander through dunes, swim, and get sunburned.


To buy clothes or not to buy clothes? No. 28 on the list of things I waste time worrying about.

When I was younger, there was no question: I desperately wanted trendy new clothes, which led to constant battles with my thrifty mother.

My mom stayed home and my father was in the Navy. Although we didn’t want for anything, we couldn’t have had a lot of spare cash with three kids in the family.

Even aside from that fact, my mother wasn’t the type to spend a lot of money on new clothes, whether for herself or for me and my sisters. She was raised by my grandmother, who grew up in a village in what is now the Czech Republic, lived through both World Wars, immigrated to Vermont in 1949 with nothing, and made all of her daughters’ clothes by hand, including their wedding dresses.

Thus, my mother scoffed at brand names, and our yearly back-to-school shopping trip was fraught. (Mom, if you are reading this, I’m nothing but grateful now for the thriftiness you instilled in me.)

I’m aware that this isn’t a story of hardship. But I was insecure for a long time, like most kids—especially girls—are. If I had been different, had known better, been more self-possessed, I could have avoided a lot of angst, but instead I desperately wanted whatever the new fashions were at the Limited and Express every year. (In retrospect, my sights were set low, but I spent my high school years in Virginia Beach, not exactly a fashion capital).

Things didn’t change too much in college. I got some spending money from my parents, and worked over the summers. I think I pretty much looked like everyone else, but I was still envious of the content of other girls’ closets, and my clothes still felt closely tied-in with my sense of self-worth.

After college I found myself in Washington, D.C. with a decent paycheck. For the first time in my life, I started to spend money more freely on clothes and it felt great. I remember catching a glimpse of myself once in my apartment hallway mirror in Nine West boots, a Banana Republic dress, and a Benetton coat, and feeling like my brand-name garb was armor against the world. It made me feel secure and protected, and I liked it. A lot.

Then I moved to a camp in Alaska for a summer, where I was the only girl who wore lipstick (really tinted lip-gloss) and showered every day.

After Alaska, I moved to Austin. Austin’s a casual town, and it’s always 90 degrees, so a lot of my nice clothes continued to languish in the closet. I never made much money, so I just got out of the habit of buying “expensive” new clothes. I wore tank-tops and flip-flops most of the time, and I found lots of cute stuff at thrift stores. Finding designer or brand-name clothing at thrift stores was deeply satisfying to my thrifty soul.

Plus, I was in a serious relationship, and my boyfriend really didn’t seem to care what I wore. It started to seem like vanity—in addition to a waste of money—to try to wear nice clothes or look hot. Who was I trying to impress? I should want people to like me for me, not to be impressed by my clothes or looks.

And then I became a lawyer, moved to Seattle, and started making more money. At first, I still had the same attitude. I didn’t have time for thrift store shopping anymore, so I bought new clothes for work occasionally because it made my life easier and I could afford it. But the “work me” didn’t feel like the real me, so I didn’t much care how the “work me” was dressed. Even though I was single again, I still felt like it wasn’t quite right to care too much about how I looked.

Over the last few years, though, my habits have been changing. I’ve started shopping and buying new clothes more, and spending more time trying to look nice. I wear makeup more often, and I’ve figured out a work style that works for me—no more black pants, button-down shirts, or pumps. Luckily, I live in Seattle, where it’s easy to get away with being casual. I’ve been really enjoying feeling like I look cute and stylish, even if it’s only in my head. I can’t deny it: I love having things in my closet that make me feel comfortable, pretty, and stylish, and I love buying new clothes. It’s delightful.

But I’m torn. Money-wise, it feels like a bit of waste. Shouldn’t I be using that money for other things, like travel or classes, or saving it so I can work less in the future? Or giving more to charity?

I’m also uncomfortable with my motivation. I’m not sure why looking nice matters.

On one hand, I think it does matter to my husband. He likes it when I’m dressed well. He’s not a fan of some of my more Bohemian choices, but he generally likes my style. Making him happy seems like a good reason to try to look nice, but I wonder whether I’m just using him as a convenient justification.

This may be the root of my discomfort: if I’m honest about it, the pleasure I get from feeling like I look nice isn’t just a matter of aesthetics. There is a competitive, or at least comparative, aspect to it. I enjoy it at least in part because I feel more attractive and more stylish than other people. And that doesn’t seem like a good source of happiness. I can easily forgive my younger self for needing that kind of validation, but at this point in my life, I don’t know. Do I take any pleasure in wearing nice clothes that doesn’t have that comparative aspect?

I don’t know what the answer is, and I know there are much bigger things to worry about—both in my life and in the lives of others. But feeling guilty whenever I buy new clothes and spending as much time justifying it to myself as I do seems awfully inefficient, and yet I don’t want to give it up because it’s too fun. I’m seriously curious about whether or how other people feel about these things.

Seven reasons to go backpacking.

I go backpacking a lot, but sometimes I wonder why. It involves a number of things that aren’t fun or pleasant, including boredom, discomfort, dirt, exhaustion, and fear.

On a typical weekend trip, we wake up early Saturday morning. We start by walking up a hill for hours with heavy backpacks on. Even the most comfortable pack is uncomfortable compared to no pack. My back is sweaty, my collarbones hurt where the shoulder straps rest, and the waist strap pushes my pants down and makes my shirt bunch up.

Walking uphill with a pack sometimes just sucks, especially at the beginning of the season. A mile and a half or two in I demand that we go home, because I’m not having fun. My husband pretends to agree, and I keep going.

I’m often worried (because worrying is my specialty) that all of the good campsites will be taken due to our late start when we reach our destination. Don’t even get me started on the one time this was kind of true, resulting with a mild altercation with some other campers in which we were most definitely in the right. That’s a story for another post.

There’s snow and mud. There are also bugs, though in Washington bugs are less of an issue than in warmer climes. I can only recall one time when the bugs were stay-in-the-tent-and-cover-every-inch-of-bare-skin unbearable. By the time we reach our destination, I’m sweaty and dirty.

The food is awful. At home, we eat like the most decadent of Roman patricians, aside from the vomiting. We live within 10 blocks of every type of food you could imagine, and I’m an excellent cook, if I do say so myself. But when we are backpacking, we eat freeze-dried food, trail mix, dried fruit, and energy bars—all decidedly boring and unsatisfying.

It’s cold. Year round. Even in August, when I’m camping in the mountains I end up wearing long underwear, a wool hat, and a down jacket.

Sleeping is really just taking a series of unsatisfying naps. I’m unduly scared of bears, so I tend to spend a lot of time listening for them. I find myself getting annoyed that my husband is sleeping and I have to be the one listening for danger all night long. This is ridiculous because a) there is no danger; b) he is probably awake too; and c) I’m not very good at it—the last time we went backpacking, he informed me in the morning that a mountain goat had spent much of the night licking up the urine I had deposited earlier just outside the tent. I had no idea, and he didn’t tell me, knowing it would make me nervous. After years of sleepless vigilance, all I have saved us from is one mouse that was burrowing into our food bag, and some waves on the shore of a lake that sounded a little like a bear.

Even without listening for camp intruders, it’s difficult to sleep. The ground is hard, and if it is below 35 degrees out I’m too cold to sleep well even in my warmest sleeping bag. I have to put my whole head inside the bag to stay warm, which makes me suffocate, at which point I take my face back out and get cold. It’s an annoying cycle that lasts all night long.

So we wake up with gritty eyes and aching heads, down some instant coffee, pack up our camp, put on our packs, and walk some more. Now it’s downhill, which is easier on the lungs but rougher on the knees and feet.

So, why do I go back again and again? Why do I spend March daydreaming about walking along snow-free ridges, and anxiously watch the weather in October to see if I’ll be able to squeeze in a last weekend before snow starts to fall?

 1. It makes small pleasures shine. Like a shower, or a cup of bitter but hot instant coffee, or the faint lightening of the air that signals dawn. One summer, I lived in a tent in Alaska. It was a fancy tent, but I had to walk a few hundred yards to get to the bathroom. When I was nearing the time when I would go back to living in a house, I was deeply excited about the fact that there would soon be a bathroom just across the hall from where I slept. I’m pretty lucky: comfort, pleasure, and entertainment are easy to come by in my life. It’s somehow reassuring to know that even simple things can still, at times, make me really happy. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and I’m so jaded that I need to purposely deprive myself to really enjoy anything.

 2. Even backpacking food tastes amazing when you’ve been hiking all day. Maybe not energy bars. But cheese? A tortilla and peanut butter? Dried cherries? Jelly beans? As delicious as a Don Juan breakfast taco in Austin, Texas after a night of drinking. Nothing in my life has ever tasted so good as the Gatorade and bag of potato chips I consumed at the end of a five-day backpacking trip, standing in a creek, underneath a bridge, in my underwear.

3. It’s good exercise. And exercise is healthy, and makes you live longer, and all of that. I also like to get plenty of exercise so that I can continue to eat all of the food I like to eat without having to invest in a new wardrobe. And, I want to stay fit so that if I get dragged into an Indiana Jones-style adventure, I will be prepared.

 4. It’s cheap. Once you have the gear you need, all backpacking costs is gas to take you to the trailhead and a forest or park permit. It’s much cheaper than going to visit a different city for the weekend, or even staying home. There are no $12 cocktails, fancy restaurants, or spa treatments available in the mountains.

5. It’s beautiful. The mountains, the water, the sunsets, the snow: seeing all that beauty just suffuses me with joy. I literally get choked up sometimes when I’m hiking. I can’t explain why this is a good thing, I just believe it is. There is this idea of flow: the state of being absorbed in and wholly focused on an activity, so that you lose track of time and yourself. Many people believe that spending more time in a state of flow makes you happier. I think experiencing the natural beauty of the world can be a shortcut to the same state, even if only briefly. It’s a way to let go of yourself and, for a moment, be immersed in something big and amazing.

 6. It’s fun to make a home in the wilderness. My favorite part of backpacking is finding a campsite. It’s fun to assess the options and thrilling to find a real gem: a comfortable spot with shelter from the wind, a convenient water source, good places to sit, and a view. Then, with just the pack on your back, you make a temporary home. You are a pioneer or a character in a fantasy novel. It’s greatly satisfying, and, as I’ve written about before, I think it speaks to some kind of primal instinct, developed when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers.

 7. The thrill of discovery. This is the best of all. You’ve been walking for hours, you’re tired and muddy, your pack is uncomfortable, and you were ready for dinner two hours ago. But it’s time to climb the final ridge on your journey, and you scramble to the top in a last burst of energy. Then, like

Stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 —you get to see what is on the other side. Maybe it’s a lake, or a pass with mountains ranged before you. Maybe it is awesome, maybe disappointing, but it is worth all the discomfort just to find out. Even if thousands of other people have been there before you, it feels like your own discovery.

Most surprising Bible quotes of the day.

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Deuteronomy 23:1.

If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity. Deuteronomy 25:11-12.

Joseph’s Bones.

Over the weekend, I read Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible, by Jerome M. Segal.

I downloaded it because I recently started reading the Bible. I’m agnostic, but I grew up going to church and attending Sunday school every week. With that plus a lot of art history under my belt, I thought I was pretty familiar with the Bible. But I’ve been struck by the sheer strangeness of the Old Testament so far.

Here’s just one example, coming from a story with which most people are probably familiar. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and instructs him to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Moses demurs at first, citing his lack of eloquence, until God gets a little peeved and says, basically, “Fine. Isn’t your brother Aaron a good speaker? He can be your spokesman. Now, get going.” So Moses heads off to Egypt with his wife and kids.

But then, in a bizarre turn of events, God tries to kill him on the way. “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.” The whole episode is just three verses long and no explanation is given. God lets Moses go because Moses’ wife, Zipporah, cuts off her son’s foreskin and touches Moses with it.

Then, there’s not one, but three stories in which one of the patriarchs (first Abraham and then Isaac) visits a strange land and pretends his wife is his sister so that the ruler of the land won’t kill him in order to marry the wife. In all three stories, the ruler takes the wife as his own and then gets in trouble with God, which doesn’t seem entirely fair.

In another detail that I once took for granted but now seems remarkable, when the Israelites are wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, God travels with them in the form of a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of smoke during the day.

It’s not just the strangeness—there are many things that just seem wrong or unfair. God is so angry and impulsive. Lot demonstrates that he is the only good man in Sodom by offering his virgin daughters to be raped by a crowd in place of his angel-visitors. Jacob comes off as a real jerk, tricking poor Esau out of his birthright for a pot of soup and then wearing a disguise to trick his elderly blind father, Isaac, into blessing him instead of Esau. I often find myself reading open-mouthed in surprise.

Somehow I took all these things in stride when I was young. Perhaps when you’re a kid, more of the world is strange and new and you’re more accepting, less discerning. Or maybe it’s just that the deck is stacked so strongly in favor of the Bible. It has a lot of authority around it suggesting that it makes sense.

Now, the Old Testament strikes me as nothing so much as the collected folk tales and mythologies of a people who are truly foreign, so distant from me in time and space and understanding that much of it is just plain inscrutable.

Reading it is not that different from listening to our tour guide on our recent trip to Bhutan. We visited temples while our guide told us one tale after the other about Bhutanese Buddhist beliefs and about the lives of the religious figures depicted in the temples. We learned that Guru Rinpoche’s wife turned into a tigress and carried him to the site of the Tiger’s Nest monastery, and that Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman, subdued demons with his phallus. We became familiar with the cast of characters and events, but we were always a little perplexed about what was history and what was pure mythology, and about what, if anything, the stories were supposed to mean. At the end of the day we’d get on our phones and search the internet for more information, trying to make sense of what we’d been told. I’m similarly curious about what I’ve read in the Bible so far. I want to know why—I want context, history, explanations.

That’s not exactly what Joseph’s Bones provides, but it was still pretty satisfying. In it, Segal undertakes a purely textual interpretation of the first six books of the Bible, the Hexateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua), positing that those books can be understood as telling a story quite different from how they are usually understood.

In that story, God is immature, rash, and emotional. He’s omnipotent but not omniscient, and not always in control of his emotions. He’s a god trying to find himself, and his self-representations don’t always match his actions. The Israelites seek forgiveness, compassion, and justice from God, and try to teach him to be bound by morality. The Hexateuch is not the word of God, but a story of the struggle and relationship between man and God.

It’s a wholly plausible and well-argued interpretation. Interestingly, it lends coherence to some of the most perplexing bits of the Old Testament I’ve come across so far. For instance, in the episode described above in which God tries to kills Moses, Segal suggests that God knows Moses will become like a god to the Israelites and is momentarily unable to contain his jealousy.

Plus, I just like it. It’s a story that’s rich and endearing and human. Isn’t the story of a forbearing people and an imperfect God who is capable of learning, who makes mistakes and has regrets, more appealing than the story of a perfect God raining vengeance on a sinful people?

The time the universe bought me a Gatorade.

When people talk about miracles, I zone out. Like evil or patriotism, the concept of miracles just isn’t real to me. I stick to the concrete things in life.

And so, for years, when I thought about whether I’d ever experienced a miracle, I thought about a hot summer afternoon in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I went to college.

One August, I quit my job waiting tables in Virginia Beach and returned to Charlottesville early. Most of my friends and roommates were still out of town.

Summer in Charlottesville is hot and humid. You start to sweat as soon as you get out of the shower, and the air is heavy. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the air conditioning in our new rental house.

I napped to escape the heat, and woke up sweaty and languid.

I started going for long walks in the afternoon to pass the time. Now, I walk everywhere. But then, fresh from my suburban childhood, I felt like I was doing something odd.

One afternoon, I was on a long walk and I got very thirsty. I hadn’t thought to bring money or water, and I was miles from home.

Eventually, I found myself on a two-lane country road with no sidewalk, just a shoulder. I was excited to see a small convenience store on the other side of the road. Hot, dusty, and desperate for water, I planned to ask for a drink in exchange for a promise to return and pay later.

Just as I was about to cross the street, I noticed two dollar bills on the ground on the shoulder of the road. I picked them up, went into the store, and bought the best Gatorade I’ve ever tasted.

I felt like the universe had given me a gift. Sure, it was a trivial moment. I wasn’t in the Gobi about to die from thirst. (And if I had been, I’m sure the shop clerk would have given me some water on the house). But I needed something, and suddenly it was there, in a very unlikely way.

Yes, finding two dollars on the ground has been the most miraculous event in my life so far.

From the prehistoric savanna to my parents’ living room.

Campsites on Mt. Adams

When I was a kid, my sisters and I built tiny dwellings out of any material available to us: leaves, snow, couch cushions, moving boxes.

Then I left my parents’ house and lived in a succession of dorms, houses, and apartments. I moved a couple of times on my own, from city to city and state to state. I lived in a tent.

When I was 23 I had my own apartment, all by myself, for the first time. I entered full of glee because it was all mine. For the six months I lived there, it contained only two pieces of furniture, a futon and a couch rescued from the trash and draped with a black sheet.  I spilled red wine liberally on the carpet, cooked black beans and rice,  and luxuriated in my autonomy.

At some point in my twenties, I decided that the kid’s instinct to build forts was about wanting to be an adult. Wanting that autonomy and control over your life and the space in which you lived it. I thought the fort I built in my parent’s living room from couch cushions and sheets was a mock-up of my first solo apartment in a charmless apartment complex in Austin, Texas.

Now I’m 33, and being an adult is old hat. But I still want to build forts. Not inside my apartment, anymore, but in other ways that feel the same.

I love backpacking, and I think the best part is choosing a place to camp for the night and settling in. The apex of this for me, so far, was on the windy and treeless side of Mt. Adams, in Washington, where people have built a collection of rock windbreaks and shelters resembling the ruins of an ancient city. On trips, I often prefer sleeping in the back of my car–I have a cozy setup involving an air mattress and a double sleeping bag–to staying in a hotel.

So now I wonder where this comes from. Is it from reading fantasy books, which almost as a rule include a quest on foot or horseback and at least three scenes of finding a good place to camp for the night?

Or does it go farther back? I’ve read about a study suggesting that all people, no matter where they are from, prefer depictions of landscapes similar to an African savanna over other landscapes. Maybe my love of building forts is a similar evolutionary artifact, a Pleistocene instinct finding expression in my modern world of gore-tex and high-rise apartments.

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