Playing Johnny Cash in Quarantine

Confession: I’m not really in quarantine. I used the term because it was shorter and easier to write than “statewide stay-at-home order,” which is technically what I’m living under. Second confession: “quarantine” sounds way more provocative and interesting than “stay-at-home-order.” So I took a writer’s liberty to be interesting rather than strictly accurate.

Johnny Cash.

But it’s true that I am playing Johnny Cash songs. I laboriously pick them out, chord-by-chord, on an out-of-tune guitar that I found in the basement. Because one thing I have, in a life where many things have been taken away and disrupted by COVID-19, is the gift of time. Freed from commuting, or post-work social obligations, or visiting the gym, I suddenly have more hours in each day. Hours which I can choose to use in unprecedented ways.

I bought my first – and only –  set of guitar picks in Austin, TX. Learning how to play guitar had been one of those things, like running another 10K race or understanding how to drive a vehicle with manual transmission, that I always meant to get around to doing. But after I came back from Texas, guitar-less, the picks literally sat in my desk drawer for almost a decade. Not forgotten, exactly. I prefer to think they were waiting. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2020. Much of the world suddenly found itself at home. On a whim, I rifled through my desk drawer. And I found my guitar picks, the shiny plastic packaging unopened, just as I had placed them there on a long-ago summer afternoon. 

Take your pick.

The six picks all have a stained glass motif, reminiscent of church windows, in each of their designs. Since it is Holy Week, I chose the pick showing Christ crucified. I don’t know if that decision was religious or irreverent, but I went with it.  

I start with the basics. The last time I’d attempted to learn an instrument was under duress. I was five or six years old and my mother dragged me to a neighbor’s house so I could take piano lessons. I dutifully stuck at it and squeaked through a couple recitals over the years, but it never became a passion. Now, however, things were different. The quest for musical proficiency was a voluntary undertaking. And with the help of YouTube, I intended to teach myself.

I sat down to attempt my first lesson. By way of internet browsing I discovered a tutorial on a three-chord foundation that will lend itself to a wide variety of songs . I propped my laptop up on the coffee table, watched the videos, and tried to strum along. Feeling the need for a visual reference, I printed out a diagram with the foundational chords: G major. C major. D major. I glanced back and forth from the diagram to my hand placement. My fingers strained to reach across the fretboard. The guitar strings cut into the soft flesh at my fingertips; my skin had not yet grown calloused and inured to the pressure. 

If my hands seemed too short, my fingernails were too long. I’d never been one for manicures or even particularly long nails, but nevertheless, the length prevented me from fully pressing down each string. Even to my untrained ear, my chords sounded wonky. I ran upstairs to the bathroom and trimmed the nails on my left hand nearly to the quick. Then, for symmetry, I cut the nails on my right hand. Thus I made my first sacrifice: vanity. 

I futzed with playing the chords a little more. The sounds I produced edged closer to resembling something musical. But I hadn’t made a song, yet. I hadn’t even made notes. For inspiration, I decided to take a break and watch footage of Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. You know, the one where he sets his red Stratocaster on fire and then smashes it onstage. The Strat which he had painted himself. And the performance during which one of the most legendary images in rock n’roll history is captured, when Jimi kneels in offering, his beautiful guitar in flames. (Side note: that picture was taken by a 17-year-old who cut school to go to the festival. True story.)

Anyway, watching that footage on the first night I picked up a guitar was a mistake. I could practice for 100 years and never come close to touching Hendrix’s talent. Thus my second sacrifice: pride. 

I had no choice but to begin at the beginning. Reflecting that plucking at chords at random may not be the best way to make progress, I decided to try a song. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” can be played with three basic chords. It’s a song I’m familiar with, lyrics and all. And thanks to the deliberate, steady chord progression that Cash is known for, I know I won’t have to play particularly quickly. 

I get out the first chord. G major. It’s a fairly forgiving finger position, and the sound comes out warm and mellow. Then there’s C major, a bit brighter, sharper, that requires more stretching of my fingers as I struggle to get them into place. And finally D major, my favorite of the three, which produces a sound that seems at once familiar and little funky. 

And I’m playing. And singing. Slowly. Painfully. But its recognizable as pieces of a song. 

These are my beginning steps. My first chords. My first music in which I both play and sing. And with the uncertainty and with the discovery there is a wobbling feeling of joy. 

I’m a long way from having the chops to jam with Jimi Hendrix. But in time, I might be able to play along with Bob Dylan on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” And Eddie Vedder doesn’t know it, but he and I are doing duets on Tuesday when I start to tackle “Release.” (I dare you to read the lyrics, close your eyes and listen to Vedder’s vocals, stick around for the psychedelic vibes of the song’s second half, and not feel something.)

Life is not always a line. Sometimes we circle back, pick up what was left behind, and find ourselves at the beginning again. And when so much of life as we’ve known it has ended, the beginning is not a bad place to be. 

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Fiction, Fast and Loose

Anyone who has had the misfortune of watching a historical anything with me will probably tell you that I’m nearly insufferable when it comes to period detail. I grouse about language, clothing, the construction of the buildings, the kinds of food that appear on the table. I nearly barfed while watching Outlaw King, and actor Chris Pine pats a child on the back while saying something that sounds suspiciously like “It’s going to be ok.”

Whaaatt? “OK” was not common parlance in medieval Scotland.  “OK” wasn’t common parlance anywhere in the English-speaking world for at least another 400 years. 

Television hasn’t proved much more satisfying. There was BBC America’s Copper, which featured a revolver-wielding detective navigating the gritty slums of New York in the years just following the American Civil War. Interesting concept. Except that the New York City Police Department didn’t have any detectives at the time. And policemen weren’t issued guns.

Reign was another show that caught my fancy. (And I watched it to the bitter end, mainly due to the captivating performances of Megan Follows as Catherine de Medici and Craig Parker as slippery nobleman Stephane Narcisse.) But among the many anachronisms that proved persistently distracting were characters drinking tea (which wouldn’t have been imported into Europe for another century). The clothing, too, was a mishmash of styles and periods that made it appear as if the series’ costume designer had raided a community theater wardrobe room and appropriated what was left from productions of PippinHair, and Our Town

Of course, there are exceptions. DeadwoodBoardwalk Empire. And even A Knight’s Tale, which makes a delicious nod to Geoffrey Chaucer while playfully winking at history; it’s a world where a medieval-sounding melody is used as a prelude to David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” and characters are dressed in pants and tunics that carry more than a whiff of the Rolling Stones’ swagger. 

I realize that we watch movies and television to be entertained. But I believe that in order to tell a good story, we need to understand the world that the story is born in. 

And in the case of history, that does mean checking a few facts.

Or a lot of them. As I wrote The Admiral’s Wife, inspired by the amazing – and true – adventures of Katherine Cochrane, I wrote it very carefully. I read. I researched. I visited archives to examine centuries-old documents firsthand and took a bus to sleepy Scottish villages. Since Kate also spent a good part of her life in South America, I gave myself a crash course in the politics of early 19th-century revolutions, made a Chilean stew called charquiquan, and drank wines from the region where she lived. I listened to recordings of native songbirds and learned what flowers grew and where. I sent a letter to the 15th Earl of Dundonald to give him a heads up that I was writing a book about his formidable ancestress. (I even started a mood board for the Cochrane’s world via Pinterest.)

It was a lot to take on. But I didn’t see a way to get around it. Since I was dealing with actual historical figures who left a sizable paper trail, I felt it was incumbent upon me to be as informed about their real lives as humanly possible. Secondly, since Kate has living relatives, I also believe I have a duty to represent her fairly, with all the understanding and authenticity that is her due.

Of course, the pressure was terrible. I often felt that I was writing while walking across a tightrope in a straightjacket. Because I didn’t just want a novel that was well-researched and thorough. I wanted a story that was good.

The best thing to do, I realized, was to put it aside. And I started writing a book that was completely different. Historical, yes. Requiring a bit of research, yes. But with characters and plot entirely made up. And completely lacking in literary pretensions.

It was the most liberating thing I could have done. My characters don’t hew to any prescribed code of behavior, and in writing it, neither did I. If I wanted to put in racy bits, I put in racy bits. If a character was in a scene where it made sense for them to throw a punch, they threw a punch. They smoke and place bets and make secret ferry crossings over the Irish Sea. There are assumed identities and well-meaning liars. There’s a clever housemaid with a taste for intrigue. And a dog. And a barfight.

Best of all, there was no unseen judge looking over my shoulder. I wrote what I wanted. That’s not to say that I was careless about things. But I was certainly much more carefree. 

In fact, it was so much fun that I’ve started writing another one. A Western, set in Montana during the waning years of the frontier, where a grieving widow is called upon to serve as her town’s justice of the peace. Writing the meet-cute between my protagonist and the man destined to become her partner (and love interest, naturally) made my toes curl. In a good way. So did a scene where the heroine interrogates a suspect using a variation of the Reid technique and all of the good cop/bad cop shenanigans that go along with it. 

I’ve no doubt that I’ll go back to The Admiral’s Wife. It’s a tale that needs telling. And when I do, I have the feeling that both Kate, and myself, will move through it a little more freely. 

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The Year of No

Since my earliest memories, I’ve been afraid of being passive. Staying still = being powerless. I suspect this is shared by many kids whose ambition outstripped their resources. To this day, I hold a deep belief that achievement and safety are somehow correlated, that if I become successful I’ll also be safe.  

This obsession began well before I entered professional life. Immediately after high school, I left for college. Not the perfectly adequate university situated literally across the street. Instead I accepted a scholarship to attend a highly selective liberal arts college five states away. While there I landed on the dean’s list every semester, served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, played intramural sports, and made appearances at parties thrown by the brothers of Chi Phi. I also had an off-campus job at a Starbucks two miles away, which I walked to unless I was lucky enough to bum a ride from a friend.

Following my summa cum laude graduation I took out loans to attend graduate school in England. (At the time, international fees cost significantly less than schools in the U.S., thanks to the way the British government set tuition rates.) I hustled a series of part-time jobs to keep myself fed. 

Upon returning to the U.S., I knew it was time to get to work. For real. Rather than heading back to my small Pennsylvania hometown, I moved to Washington, D.C.  I spent my first months in one of the world’s most powerful cities living off an $10/hour (pre-tax) temp gig. I had no car, and I ate whatever I could buy at CVS. I lived in a cold basement apartment in a dodgy part of the city. Over a series of weeks, during my walks back and forth from the subway, I monitored the progress of a discarded condom’s slow decay as it withered on the sidewalk. I worried about getting mugged. One of my coworkers at my temp job gave me a pair of socks for Christmas. I wore them until they developed a hole near the toes; then I found some thread and a needle and darned the hole. 

A serendipitous conversation at an alumni event resulted in an office job with a tiny salary – but a salary nevertheless – and benefits. I started freelance writing at about the same time. Not only was the extra income welcome, but it led to making vital connections, one of which resulted in a position within the PR office of a world-renowned research library. 

Things were looking up. But as I discovered over the next several years, working in the non-profit realm is not very profitable. At least not in a place with a cost of living like Washington, D.C. At a downtown conference I stopped by a booth for a consulting firm located just north of the city. I struck up a conversation with a pair of recruiters. Business cards exchanged hands, I sent over my resume, and at the conclusion of the interview process I had a new job that put me in a new industry. And for the first time in my life, I was earning a salary that let me buy whatever I wanted at the grocery store.

The point is, it all underscored my sense that opportunities are not given. They are made. 

And opportunities cannot be waited for; they must be pursued. The moment I stop striving towards the next thing is the moment I fail.

Saying yes has gotten me far.

It has also become unsustainable. Which is why I’ve decided on a radical experiment: I will make 2020 the year of saying no. 

No to believing that I still need to “prove myself.”

No to taking responsibility for making everyone around me feel comfortable, regardless of what it costs. 

No to anything that requires me to be at a gym at 5:30am.

No to anxiety-provoking family expectations.

No to devoting myself to professional pursuits that require exceptional commitments of time and energy, yet yield diminishing returns.

And finally, no to green tea and butternut squash – I never liked ‘em. Never will. 

The hope, of course, is that in time no will lead to yes. Yes to new pursuits. Yes to what makes me excited. Yes to cherished relationships. Yes to solidarity, and pilates classes, and passion. 

And yes, naturally, to myself. To the woman I was, to the woman I am, and to the woman that I will become. 

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Doorways to Gratitude

It seems that more than ever, the world is in need of optimism. There are many things to worry about. Conflict. Our warming planet. Politics. The economy. Enemies, foreign and domestic. Not to mention, our own health, our commutes, our families, our bank accounts, the headaches with the utility company or the Internet service provider or the grocery store that just stopped carrying our favorite brand of coffee.

Stress is endemic. It’s serious enough that it has been recognized as a public health issue by the former U.S. Surgeon General. But this post isn’t about stress. Nor is about forced optimism, an insistence on finding the good in every situation, in calling the glass half full when all evidence points to the contrary.

But I am going to write about gratitude. And I’m going to write about the strangers, friends, and little moments of grace that allow me to feel this. Many of these people changed my life. Sometimes for an afternoon. Sometimes for years.

For example, my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Beason who taught me to read. My college English professor who, upon my graduation, presented me with a book inscribed “Remember to be yourself” – advice which I am still trying to follow.  

There is my former co-worker Charlotte who first talked me into running. With her prompting, I completed my first 5K, and went on to run longer, harder, more challenging races for the next several years. There are the wonderful and witty writers I crossed paths with two summers ago, one of whom collected a couple of us into her red convertible one afternoon to tool around the Hamptons. (Like I was going to say no.) And the women whose names I cannot recall, but under whose tutelage I learned how to ride a motorcycle. 

And sometimes, it is being ourselves, by ourselves, that opens this doorway. The moments we encounter accidentally, but are somehow just the right place, just the right time. Getting up early, resentful of the dark and cold, and then looking up to see the sky cast in a lavender dawn. Walking in the woods and catching sight of two kestrels circling each other, the white feathers of their bellies catching the sunlight. Hearing the wind as it pushes through brown leaves and dry grass.

Because life is improv. We never get the same day twice. Sometimes – maybe most days – we may feel like imposters. But when we find those with whom we may be our authentic selves – and the moments where our authentic selves feel closest –  it is cause for gratitude indeed.

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American Abroad, Part 2

40 on the French Riviera

Postcard showing the La Reserve and Le Plongeur restaurants, early 1900s.

“On Thursday I’m going to the French Riviera.”

There was only one time in my life when I could speak those words. It was last month, when my husband and I were in Paris and about to begin part deux of our French adventure.

I’d booked us tickets on the TGV from Paris all the way to France’s Mediterranean coast. It was a rail journey of about six hours. And at the end of it would be Nice, gateway city to the famous French Riviera. 

The objective in going? Simply to say that we, too, could trod in the same footsteps as 90% of the world’s superyacht fleet.

I had a free hotel night I could use in nearby St-Laurent-du-Var. With a quick internet search I found a seafront hotel with a private beach that happened to have availability. And voila! We were on our way.

But it wasn’t quite that simple. I was going to be turning 40. Along with that was the acknowledgement that, in all probability, I would never have biological children of my own. Would never be pregnant. Would never watch a life I’d created live and grow and learn. (And before you say, there are doctors and treatments and therapies…been there. Done that.) So I was on the French Riviera to let go of a dream.

Even saying the words “French Riviera” felt a little surreal. Stumbling off the train and into blinding sunlight and temperatures near 90 degrees F only added to the sense of having left Paris and landed in a strange, parallel universe.

Our first order of business was to get to the hotel. My husband found an Uber and as the driver sped us along the Promenade des Anglais, she spoke to me in indulgent French as we chatted about Nice’s remarkable climate and history. She even offered a few restaurant suggestions for our stay. 

As soon as we’d checked in, I changed and made for the beach. No matter that it was nearly suppertime and the sand was nearly deserted. I’d come to experience the Cote d’Azur, and something as trivial as being hungry wasn’t going to stop me. I bobbed in the blue waves, momentarily sated, as the warm waters of the Mediterranean wrapped and held me. 

The following day was Friday, September 13. My 40th birthday. I was up early enough to watch pink rays of light illuminate the sky above the ocean. We had breakfast on the balcony. Always terrible at loafing, even while on vacation, I set out soon after to explore the neighboring area. In short order I found a sprawling shopping complex, where I purchased gold hoop earrings, a colorful headscarf, white sleeveless blouse, and aviator-style sunglasses. I figured it was time to have a little fun. 

Ensemble a la Nice. The whole lot cost less than a DC happy hour.

Newly accessorized, I cajoled my husband into biking along Le Promenade. It was midday, which meant that it was blistering hot as well as beautiful. We grabbed lunch in town (a 3 euro slice of pizza for me, Chinese takeout for him) and biked back. That afternoon I returned to the beach in a swimsuit I’d snagged off a Target clearance rack prior to the trip. I may not have arrived on a superyacht, but dammit, I was doing it. I was in character. 

Our idyll continued that evening for drinks at Le Plongeur, a beautiful multi-level seaside restaurant with views like something out of a James Bond film. We had dinner at the neighboring La Reserve – an exquisite meal of broiled fish served alongside bread, pasta, and olives, accompanied by excellent wine. For dessert the waiter presented a towering chocolate creation nearly too lovely to eat.

There was the tour via electric bicycles to a local vineyward. Vince cracked jokes with friendly Irish couples as we ate our sandwiches at tables beneath the olive trees. It was the first day of the grape harvest. Later we shopped at a local market where I found a pair of yellow earrings as bright as the sun. 

All in all, I was able to live in a kind of magic for which I will be forever grateful.

Part of me – the part that dreamed of creating a child – was empty. It is a painful goodbye which is still ongoing. But another part, the writer and adventurer, came home very full.

Not every day can bring a trip to France, of course. But every day is a chance to give a gift to yourself. What will yours be? A shared laugh with a friend? A visit to somewhere new? A cup of your favorite coffee?

On one of my last days in France I purchased a small postcard that read, in gold letters, “Tout commence par un reve.” Everything begins with a dream. Many dreams don’t come true. But sometimes, we may embrace others that come to take their place.

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American Abroad, Part 1

Arc de Triomphe, Paris.

For years, Paris has lived on my bucket list. Decades, actually – ever since my first high school French class, when the very first French sentence I spoke was Paris est la capital de la France. Uttering those words felt very foreign. Very exciting. Very adventurous. And at last, two university degrees, nine job changes, a marriage, and three relocations later, I was going to go to Paris.

My husband and I touched down at Charles de Gaul airport on a sunny September morning. Despite our jetlag, with the help of Google and my high school French we navigated the local train service and then the subway, suitcases in tow, to emerge triumphantly from the Tour-Maubourg metro station in the 7th arrondisement. My first sight of Paris was a beautiful building facade, its windows shining in the midday sun. To my left was a bubbling fountain, and beyond that, a small shaded park. And in that moment, instantly and totally, I was in love.

Before we go further, to avoid disappointment if the following aren’t mentioned, let me disclose what I didn’t do:

  • Tour the Louvre
  • Shop the Champs-Elysees
  • Visit the Moulin Rouge (or anywhere else in Montmartre)
  • Wear a beret

Hardly anyone wears a beret in Paris. And of those who did, I suspect they were mainly tourists.

Having lived in Washington DC, a city that attracts its own fair share of visitors, I know that sightseeing often creates photo opportunities but not a true sense of place. I did concede to taking an open-top Big Bus tour, and happily grabbed shots of Notre Dame, the Paris Opera, and various monuments. But I also insisted that we hop off to walk in the Tuileries Gardens, and to visit the art and booksellers with their stalls along the Left Bank of the Seine. And we did join the crowds who flock to Versailles.

From its golden gates to the sprawling palace with its famed Hall of Mirrors to acres of artificial lakes, fountains, and formal gardens, Versailles is built to astound. And it does. But not even that power and splendor could prevent Louis XVI, and his Austrian-born wife Marie Antoinette, from meeting the blade of the guillotine. 

I could not see Versailles without thinking of the bloodshed of French Revolution. I could not look at Notre Dame without remembering the terrible acts of religious violence that have marked Paris. Even the Eiffel Tower is not immune – today its lights sparkle in the Paris night, but during the German occupation of Paris in World War II, daring residents cut the elevator cables so that Adolf Hitler would be unable to get to the top of the monument unless he climbed it. (So far as we know, he never did.) 

For Paris is a city that shows the magnificence of humanity, but also our cruelty. I did not want to be a careless visitor, one who saw only Paris’ beauty and forgot what suffering had occurred among its boulevards and parks.

So what did I do in Paris? I walked. I ate in bistros and cafes – lots of them. My husband and I strolled along the banks of the Seine at night and watched as the city lights reflected in its dark waters. We sought out the spot where medieval pilgrims left Paris to begin the long journey to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. I indulged in all sorts of carbs: crepes, croissants, wine. I visited a bookstore and purchased the Paris Snob Guide, 1967 edition. 

Basement of the Libraire Gai Rossignol, 9 rue saint martin, Paris.

I even spoke a little French. It was uncanny to be able to understand much more of a a language than I could express. I listened to waiters or department store staff or radio DJs, and I had a sense of the conversation. But I didn’t have the spoken fluency to be able to answer. Sometimes the Parisians defaulted to English. Sometimes there was pantomime. Sometimes we had a hybrid conversation that switched between languages. My best French moment was probably a request to the concierge for a new hairdryer. We did it entirely in French, even the bit where he explained to me that the room key needed to be inserted in the slot for the light switch. And I responded, in French, that yes, we did that, and no, the hairdryer didn’t work and hadn’t worked since we checked in. He kindly found me another one. 

And I watched Parisians. The daring motorcyclists and scooter riders zipping through traffic. A dad and his toddler son at the cafe opposite ours one evening. The man calmly smoked with the baby in his stroller beside the table. When the child grew restless, dad lifted him out and set him on a chair, and continued with his cigarette. The businessman in a park who, having finished his lunch, took off his suit jacket and laid it on the grass. He then lay back and rested for the remainder of his lunch hour. At its conclusion, he picked up his jacket, shook it off, and returned to work.

One of my favorite things about travel is the chance to see people in other parts of the world living their lives. And, perhaps, to step into an alternate version of my own.

The version where I wake to new foods, new sounds, new things to see. 

And perhaps, just perhaps, I stepped closer not only to the person I aspire to be, but to a more authentic version of myself. The self that watches. The self that writes. On the morning of our last day there, I was up early. I opened the windows so that I could sit on the bed and gaze out at the cathedral opposite. It holds the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. Six stories below, Parisians moved toward the city center on their morning commute. I opened my journal, picked up a pen, and knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. 

Next Month: American Abroad, Part 2, with adventures on the French Riviera.

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Roll Like Thunder, Gone Like Smoke

Accidents happen. Specifically, motorcycles accidents. And I knew, as a rider, that sooner or later one would happen to me.

The day started out beautifully.  Bright sunshine, clear skies, temperatures cool enough to make wearing jeans, gloves, a helmet, and a padded jacket pleasurable. My husband Vince and I headed north from Pittsburgh, me on my sporty 883 SuperLow and Vince on his Indian Scout. 

Long shadows stretched over the asphalt as we rode up the interstate. Fog rose in white clouds among the treetops when we crossed the Ohio River. I revved into 5th gear and felt the wind rush over my hands, arms, and chest. And it felt good. 

Miles 1 through 46 of the journey passed without incident. After a hearty pancake breakfast at our destination, we decided to continue our ride along the shores of a nearby lake. As we made our way along the two-lane road that would take us there, I attempted to make a turn over some gravel. The motorcycle lost traction and went down, carrying me with it. In less than a second I found myself on the ground with my left leg pinned underneath 500-plus pounds of angry metal. 

I tried to pull free and couldn’t. The bike was too heavy, and my injured leg didn’t have the strength for me to drag it out. For a few scary moments I was pinned and helpless, cars passing me by on the road, until my husband lifted the bike so that I could get clear.

I knew I was hurt. I didn’t think anything was broken. Still, my knee was thobbing and once I was able to take a look I discovered a deep gash that had bled through my jeans. Tiny bits of yellow adipose tissue poked through the cut. My left arm and shoulder – the side I’d landed on – were sore. But thanks my helmet and leather gloves, my hands and face remained unscathed.

My first priority was treating the cut. We didn’t have a first aid kit with us, so Vince went into town to get supplies. Meanwhile, I made my way to a spot under some trees and rolled up the leg of my jeans. I wanted to allow the cut to bleed freely until I could properly clean it; doing so would help dislodge any dirt or debris that might have gotten into the puncture.

My impromptu wound triage was interrupted by the arrival of an employee of the small business whose parking lot I was loitering in, albeit under duress. He took a look at me and then my motorcycle, and quickly invited me in to use the sink and first aid kit. By the time Vince returned, all that remained was for him to ACE-wrap my knee. A couple Good Samaritans in the shop helped get my cracked windshield back into place. 

My options were now to either leave the damaged Harley behind and ride two-up behind my husband. Or I could climb back on for a 50-mile return trip to Pittsburgh.

Vince and I had never ridden with me as a passenger, and the highway didn’t seem an ideal place to learn. My motorcycle, despite its damage, appeared operable. So like the Chris Ledoux song, I decided to cowboy up. 

Thanks to the bandages, the bleeding on my leg was slowed. Still, it would likely need stitches. And since it was the leg I used to shift gears, the ride back wasn’t going to be exactly comfortable.

But I made it. There were challenges, and not just physical and mental ones. We had to make another stop to get my left mirror back into place after I found it was dangling dangerously askew (and preventing me from seeing any traffic on my left side.)  Seconds before I was about to merge back into the freeway I realized that my clutch was sticking.  A clutch lever that didn’t release meant that the engine wasn’t able to engage the transmission. No transmission engagement = no changing gears. Luckily, I was able to pop the lever outward and get myself into a gear that allowed me to travel at highway speed.

Troubleshooting mechanical issues while riding a motorcycle is never something I imagined myself doing. But I did.

Back in Pittsburgh and after my stitches from urgent care,  I immediately thought of what I could have done differently. Of what I would do better next time. Of how I could be safer. 

I took some comfort in the fact that I dressed for the occasion. Riding around in a t-shirt and without a helmet looks cool, but it’s not so awesome if your bare skin hits asphalt at 70 mph.  Motorcyclists have enough disadvantages when it come to safety to begin with – no airbags, no seat belts, no rearview mirror, no standard ABS – that any step to reduce risk is, in my mind, worth doing. If anything, I’m more convinced now than ever of the necessity of proper gear. (Kevlar-lined jeans, anyone?). 

Of course, protective apparel can only do so much. Skills and technique are also key. I’ve been reading up a lot on how to ride safely on gravel. Not surprisingly, there are an abundance of blog posts and even videos with tips on how to do this. 

As I look back and as the episode replays in my mind, I ricochet back and forth between thinking of it in two ways. The first comes from fear. What if. What if next time, I’m seriously hurt. What if my bike is totaled. What if it’s an accident that I can’t get up and walk away from.

The other is pride. Something scary happened. But I didn’t cry or panic or fall apart. I got back up, and I met the challenge. I’ll be better next time, and smarter, and hopefully safer. 

I still fight my fear. My first ride after the accident was me against my “what ifs.” I have to learn to trust myself again. And the only way to get better is to keep going.

Yesterday, for the first time, I went out on a road that has intimidated me for months. Stopping and starting on hills. Intersections. Merges. Curves. Highway. And I didn’t do it on my sporty. I did it on a burly 1700cc Harley-Davidson Softail Slim. I felt like I was punching a bit out of my weight class, but I came back smiling.   

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Watch out for life.” Life on the highway threw me a few challenges. But something tells me I’ll be back for more.

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Last Call at the Gem Saloon

Molly Parker as Alma Garrett in HBO’s Deadwood.

In May, HBO’s Deadwood made a long-anticipated return in a film that reunited many original cast members and tied up lingering story lines that had languished since the show’s abrupt end in 2006. I’ve long been a fan of the series, which has some of the best writing and most memorable characters I’ve seen on television. While the dialogue is notoriously profanity-laden and the show often veers into unflinching brutality, at its core Deadwood is a story about community. It’s about what civilization and compassion looks like in a world that rarely rewards either.

In fact, the gamblers, gunslingers, and adventurers of the fictional Deadwood inspired my visit to the South Dakota town – and a night spent in the haunted Bullock Hotel – during the cross-country roadtrip that prompted this blog. 

To celebrate the Deadwood movie, a theme dinner was in order. 

Menu:

  • Golden Sweet Cornbread
  • Blistered Green Beans
  • Vegetable Fried Rice (a nod to Mr. Wu and Deadwood’s Chinese community)
  • Flame-Grilled Steak
  • Peach Cobbler with (Unauthorized) Cinnamon 

The amateur mixologist in me seized the opportunity to create a cocktail in honor of the occasion. Thus was born the Alma Garrett. Like it’s namesake, the drink is complex and nuanced, with a flair for understated drama. Besides, a character tough enough to refuse to be cowed by her husband’s murder, overcome a reliance on opium, take in an orphaned child, found Deadwood’s first bank (backed by the strength of her own gold claim), and train a former brothel worker to be her first teller deserves to have a glass raised in her honor. Not to mention, her impossible romance with town sheriff Seth Bullock. Alma, this one’s for you.

I took inspiration from the classic French cocktail, kir, which blends white wine with blackcurrant liqueur. But instead of the liqueur, I substituted a blackberry shrub. Why shrub? And why blackberry?

Historically, shrubs were popular in the 19th-century United States. Made by blending vinegar with berries or fruits, shrubs served as flavorings as well as a means of preservation. I liked the idea of using shrub as a throwback ingredient that could be reminiscent of something Alma herself may have sampled. But rather than a cultivated fruit like peaches, strawberries, or raspberries, I wanted a flavor that hinted at the frontier. I wanted something wild. After all, Deadwood is a place where town boss Al Swearengen and Gem Saloon proprietor dispenses advice along the likes of:

“The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man. And give some back.”

That’s Al’s idea of a pep talk.

Using my blackberry shrub as a base (I riffed on this summer fruit shrub recipe from The New York Times), I had a little fun with mixology. Alma’s character has an air of elegance, sophistication, and fashion, even in the rough environs of Deadwood. She strikes me as a woman who would appreciate a taste of Paris wherever she was. So I subbed my shrub for blackcurrant liqueur, topped it off with a sparkling white wine, added a few fresh berries for garnish, and voila! The Alma Garrett.

The Alma Garrett cocktail.

The result? Magnifique!

Want to make your own? Here’s the recipe!

Alma Garrett

  • 1 part Blackberry Shrub (instructions listed below)
  • 3 parts sparkling white wine (Moscato, or use champagne for a twist on a kir royale)
  • Fresh blackberries to garnish

Blackberry Shrub: Crush 8 ounces fresh blackberries in a glass or porcelain bowl (don’t use metal or plastic). Add 1/3 cup granulated sugar. Mix well, until berries are pulpy and the sugar is nearly dissolved. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight. Uncover, stir well, and add 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar. Stir again and refrigerate for several days (up to 1 week). When ready to use, strain the shrub through a fine sieve or cheesecloth into a clean Mason jar or bowl. You want to retain the liquid and remove seeds and fruit pulp. Store unused shrub in the refrigerator.

To make the cocktail: Measure the shrub into a champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine. Garnish with fresh berries and serve at once.



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Confessions of an Insecure Biker Girl

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo, Unsplash.

An English major walks into a Harley dealership. No, this isn’t the start of an awkward joke. Or a dare. Or an accidental wrong turn off the highway.

It happened. And perhaps, it was inevitable that it did. Perhaps it was the culminating stage of my case of motoritis that had been progressing for years. (The early onset of this condition is chronicled in my previous reflections on doing scary sh*t.)

I’d been puttering along more or less happily on my little Honda Rebel 250. But I no longer wanted to putter. I wanted to roar. Motorcycles aren’t for those who want quiet lives.

What louder, badder, don’t mess-with-me motorcycle is there than a Harley Davidson?

Naturally, I did my research. I read online reviews, flirted with the idea of the now-defunct Yamaha Star, visited an Indian dealership to check out the competition. When I expressed interest in taking one of the Indian bikes for a test ride, the salesman demurred. I smelled a brush-off. And I suspected the reason why. Despite the salesman’s claim that no local dealerships were allowing test rides, I decided to try my luck with the Harley boys up the road.

Harley said yes. Sure, they wanted to sell me a motorcycle. But after checking my license and hearing my assurances that I’d brought my helmet and gear with me, there was no quibbling. And just like that, I threw a leg over a Harley for the first time.

And it felt good. Damn good. I remembered all too well my first catastrophic attempts to simply get a motorcycle started. I stalled out countless times. When I finally got the throttle engaged, I was so shocked that I lost control of the bike and down we both went onto the asphalt.

Not so today. The enormous Milwaukee 8 engine rumbled to life with the touch of a button. I asked and the machine obeyed. The grin stayed on my face through first, then second, then third gear as I made triumphant laps around the parking lot.

Some of the sales staff were less accommodating. At a different dealership, I got called honey and darlin’ so many times as to have a palpable effect on my blood pressure. But I wanted to upgrade my motorcycle more than I wanted to deliver a lecture on how to sell motorcycles to females, so I bit my tongue while quietly contemplating what it would take to start a woman-owned Harley dealership.

Because, as it turned out, I knew more than some of the men assisting me. In the wee hours of the morning, I flipped through parts catalogs and watched YouTube videos learning how to change rocker box covers. I’d always been an apt student, and darned if I wasn’t going to throw myself into learning as much as I could about the mechanics of riding free.

But of course motorcycles are far more than an intellectual exercise. There was the first time I caught my reflection after a ride, leather jacket on and hanging unzipped, helmet in hand, and the sight startled me. Same with when I saw my shadow as I rode through winding suburban streets on my sleek black Sportster. I was me, but me as I’d never seen myself before. And I liked it.

I’d reached the tipping point where excitement won out over fear. Sure, there are still some rides I don’t feel quite ready for. It’ll likely be years before I head out to Sturgis. Even Pittsburgh’s hills are notorious, and I practice my techniques for stopping and starting on inclines regularly around the neighborhood. It’s enough so that it gets noticed. In fact, it gets noticed by women. Women who ask how long I’ve had a motorcycle. Women who stop their cars, teenage daughter in the passenger seat, to say my riding looks good.  

And that is the best part of it. I like to think my shiny chrome pipes are blowing out estrogen along with exhaust. I like to think of other women who never waited for an invitation, but simply believed they had as much right as anyone else to ride. And so they did. And so do I.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and imply no formal endorsement of any brand or product.

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Neither Here Nor There

Note: The following was originally written in the early spring of 2017, while participating in a travel writing workshop with the wonderful Eric Weiner at DC’s Politics and Prose. This month, March 2019, is the one-year anniversary of my return to Pennsylvania. It seemed a fitting time to share.

The segments of my life can be measured by a suitcase. First the big cheap black one that I took with me to Nicaragua – I was fifteen years old and it was the first time I left the country, laden with optimism, with an innocent desire to do good. So I carried with me plastic trinkets and school supplies to give away to the kids that I knew I’d find there, kids that when I met them sometimes had bellies rounded with malnutrition and whose hair grew stiff and orange from their heads like straw. Then college, the same black suitcase, this time with my newly-purchased sweaters and spiral-bound notebooks and a little caddy to carry my shampoo and toothpaste back and forth to the common shower on the all-girls floor. A few years later that suitcase rolled with me on a Greyhound bus the summer I left home and spent the months from June ‘til August sleeping on the sunporch of a friend’s apartment. Then again, the same black suitcase straining at the seams as I wheeled it through the departure terminal at the Pittsburgh International Airport, my eyes fixed straight ahead. A plane waited to carry me to England and graduate school, and the preceding twenty-three years of my life were pared down to what could fit into a space no greater than 35.5 x 29.5 x 16 inches. My past and future compressed together, squeezed tight to comply with the checked baggage allowance of British Airways.     

Photo by Josh Sorenson

I did not ask myself, then, what I was leaving, what I was getting away from. I’m not sure that I can answer even now. Sometimes I think of returning, even if I don’t yet know the answer to what I’d be seeking once I got there.

There is the farmlands and tumbledown towns of western Pennsylvania. The place where wooden houses painted in fresh white with a single curtain tied back in each window indicate that an Amish family lives inside. Where each small town has at least one hardware store and at least two bars and probably more churches, and it used to be that people at the local supermarkets would carry your groceries out to your car and not expect a tip. Where in summertime children play in cricks, not creeks.  When the fields got planted the air is filled with the different scents of manure: the traditional kind, earthy and brown and almost pleasant because it was so familiar, and the liquid kind made from the feces of pigs that stank and spread for miles if the wind blew in a certain direction. We all drank pop.

I left but I haven’t stayed away. Is it survivor’s guilt that troubles me when I return? The black suitcase has long ago disappeared, but I still have the luxury of moving in and out. Others don’t. I can step into my late model Honda – the Touring edition with heated leather seats – and drive, leaving behind the empty storefronts and the strip-mined hillsides and the acres upon acres of cornfields that, when shorn and empty in winter with the remnants of skeletal yellow leaves rattling in the wind, create a sense of barren bleakness that is hard to shake even indoors. I can drive away and return to my job with its salary that is considered almost decent by city standards and princely by most Pennsylvania measures, return to skim milk lattes and Pilates classes, return to a world where people patronize farmers’ markets but have never had the muck of manure touch their shoes.

Yet even in the insularity of suburbia, I lived in silent fear of collapse. There are the quirks. Such as why my closet is filled with clothes that have long outlived both style and utility: a pink lace party dress that hasn’t fit in years, green t-shirts with “Beechwood Garden Center” emblazoned across the back from a summer job I had over a decade ago, the faded cotton pants and jacket and bright belt from the black gei I wore for karate lessons in high school. Why I return half-consumed cans of soda to the refrigerator, their open tops covered carefully in plastic wrap so that I can drink them later and there is no waste.

I and the other exiles are in the in-between. We are half-breeds born and bred of small towns and farms, passing anonymously (if we’ve lost our accents) through urban America, one foot on a subway platform and the other on a gravel road.

And yet I did not come to the city ignorant, a blank mind waiting to be filled with the secrets that only the concrete and crowds can teach. I came knowing when the spring peepers sound in the ponds, the noise throbbing in the air so that it creates a living wall of sound. I know the time when the sap rises in the maple trees, and how long it takes to boil it down to syrup that is sweet and thick and wild. I know the time to hunt deer in the woods after the leaves of the oaks and maples have fallen, and when the baby calves are born with their wet coats and wobbling legs. Even before I touch the kernels I can tell the difference between field corn and sweet corn. I know where to find wild blackberries, and along the streams and wetlands I’ll listen to the blackbirds singing and find which tadpoles will turn to frogs and which ones will be toads. All of these things I learned without knowing how I came by them.

And there are the lessons of the city, too, the rhythms of its language. Getting rid of “crick” and “pop.” Hailing taxis. Learning how to understand people with different accents without constantly asking them to repeat themselves. The art of small talk with someone who you don’t know well but who might be rich or important. And how to never be too honest, which is a lesson that I find the people in the country know as well. 

The road I travel is a circle. There is no horizon to find. I live between two sets of waypoints, one where I mark time by commuting distance and billable hours, and the other that shifts from my hands as I reach to measure it. But still, there is the relief of sometimes catching, in the distance, the sounds of spring peepers, or forgotten smells like new-growing hay with the scent of earth and grass and sunshine coming together that makes my heart skip a beat and sends me back, whirling, into the past.

We all run. It’s only a question of how far we get. Of the distances we cover that cannot be mapped. Of the places we find ourselves in that have no coordinates.

 

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