My So-Called (Bridgerton) Life

Note: Contains spoilers for Bridgerton, Season 3.

I recently awoke on a Saturday faced with the delightful prospect of a day without obligations. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the morning air was cool and pleasant. It was a storybook beginning.

I rolled out of bed, pulled on my dressing gown, and imagined myself as a lady of leisure. I took it a step further and imagined myself in the world of Bridgerton – or at least as close as I could get in America of 2024.

I proceeded downstairs to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of fresh coffee. The coffee was ready and waiting, prepared not by a servant, but by my conveniently programmable coffeemaker. Outside, I sat in the garden while my dog lolled on the grass. I listened to the birds. I fussed over a container of bright yellow pansies (pansies are everywhere on Bridgerton) and admired the hydrangeas about to bloom.

A little later, I dropped off a jar of homemade strawberry preserves at my neighbors’ house, a small token of appreciation for a favor they’d done me. I walked in the streets of my respectable but not fashionable neighborhood, admiring the well-tended yards and lamenting those that were not. I attended to a few household matters and attempted some writing – longhand, in cursive – including the draft of this blog post.

In the afternoon, I called at a local dress shop. This activity felt remarkably Bridgerton-esque: I traveled to the shop on foot, met a friend there whose advice I’d enlisted to guide my choice (I was shopping for a wedding dress), and needed the assistance of the salesclerk to get myself in and out of the gowns. At one point, the salesclerk had to buckle my shoe for me: I was literally standing on a pedestal, immobilized by yards of crepe and Italian tulle. The amount of fuss unsettled me, as did being unable to do even the simplest activities on my own. Still, part of it felt fun – when else had I received such attention? Or reveled in simply searching for what would make me feel beautiful?

For say what you will about Bridgerton, it is beautiful. The homes, the clothes, the gardens, the characters. Rarely do you see poverty, disease, or work of any kind (aside from the servants, and even then, their chores are apparently mostly carrying trays and arranging hair and fetching the occasional snuffbox.) The Bridgerton ladies themselves rarely engage in any activity more demanding than taking a constitutional or ringing for tea. Dancing, I suppose, may be an exception, and there are the few ladies who ride.

I managed to practice my French. I neglected my music (in my case, an electric guitar, which is decidedly anachronistic), but did decide to take advantage of the fine weather for some exercise. I went on a late afternoon ride, by bicycle, through very pretty woods and afterwards, enjoyed an indecorous pint of ale. Unchaperoned.

I thought of what the show gets right about the Regency era. Or at least, doesn’t overly distort or misrepresent: the strict social rules, aristocratic privilege, the pressure on women to marry, the vast disparity between genders in what was sexually acceptable.

Yet there is much that is fantasy. The racial equality among the ton and portrayal of Queen Charlotte as a black woman are two plot points on the show of deeply questionable accuracy. And as much as I would have liked for the romance between Brimsley and Reynolds, as well as other same-sex pairings, to be able to flourish in the early 1800s, in reality they would have been subject to sodomy laws that would have considered their intimacy a capital offense.

Heterosexual relationships also came with real risks, particularly for women. Women had no lawful political power, no voting rights, no ownership rights to property once they married. The second her wedding ceremony concluded, Penelope would have forfeited every penny of her earnings as Lady Whistledown to Colin Bridgerton. Her children, too, would be considered her husband’s property (this was not settled until decades later, through the remarkable case of Caroline Norton). The show does not address the fact that Penelope would stand to lose a lot more than the power of her pen once she became Mrs. Bridgerton.

Of course the era did have many brilliant women: Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and others. This was also the period of Byron and Keats and incredible exploration and scientific discovery. It was likewise a time when syphilis could be a death sentence, half of the female population was illiterate, and it was considered acceptable for a six-year-old to work a 10-hour factory shift. Don’t even ask about maternal and infant mortality.

I look at Bridgerton as a cautionary tale as much as it is an escape. It is a reminder to beware of making over the past in our own image. To pause before rushing to snap up show-themed merch without any understanding of what it is we want to imitate. To proceed carefully so as not to forget the truth of history. Amnesia may be convenient, but it is no cure.

Producer Shonda Rhime’s Mayfair is sparkly and entertaining and shamelessly sanitized. It could be a fun place to visit, but no one actually lives there.

Continue Reading

Character Study

A novelist’s job is, first and foremost, to tell a good story. For a historical novelist, there is another layer. Yes, the story needs to be good. But the place and characters – the story’s universe, as it were –must feel real. Authentic. Of their time, but also relatable for a reader picking up the story today.

This is not always easy. And it may be why I’ve been at work on my women’s fiction novel The Admiral’s Wife for so long. How do I bring to life the voice of my protagonist, Katherine Cochrane, when we are separated by two centuries and so little of our lived experience overlaps?

Portrait of Kate with her daughter Elizabeth
Detail of a portrait showing Kate Cochrane and her daughter Elizabeth. Private collection.

I understand my role is not that of a documentarian, nor of an academic. But having grown up a lifelong love of history and earning a master’s degree in the field, it irks me not to get the details right. I am terrible to watch period films with for this reason – I will spot anachronisms, roll my eyes, occasionally comment, and depending on the film, either give it a pass or make a mental note to visit History vs. Hollywood later. Historical novels are the same way. I literally stopped reading a New York Times bestseller after the third gaffe I spotted, a reference to hunting deer in the spring. It doesn’t take a wildlife biologist to know that spring is the wrong time to hunt deer. One, they’re raising babies. Two, deer tend to be rather thin after the winter. Three, a Google search could provide a fact-check on this topic in about 10 seconds.
So I decided that a book with sloppy research wasn’t worth my time, no matter how well it sold. And I set a goal for myself to do better.

Unfortunately, there are no books written on Kate Cochrane. Nor any academic articles, essays, or other items that I was able to locate. She is mentioned in works about other people – mainly her husband, Admiral Lord Cochrane, but never as the subject in her own right. Before I could become Kate’s storyteller, I had to become her biographer.

I delved into sources on her period: paintings, newspapers, dresses and jewelry of Regency England (that’s Bridgerton era, y’all, for anyone swept up in that series), recipe books, documents, music. I made a Pinterest board to keep track of it all. And luckily for me, Kate was quite the letter writer. I located a trove of her correspondence in a Scottish archive and spent several rainy autumn days reading and transcribing her letters. It was magic.

Letters are the next best thing to an interview, I think. It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation. As a reader of letters, you are privileged. You pick up tone, relationship dynamics, desires and tensions. In Kate’s, I see her longing for her husband, exasperated by her children, frustrated by circumstances, triumphant after a successful lobbying effort.
Her excitement and elation at traveling in South America, when she accompanied her husband there during his naval campaigns, is palpable:

I determined to continue my route as far as the Inca’s bridge, which is about four leagues the other side of the highest pass on the Cordillera…This I accomplished and was most particularly gratified by having done so as it enables me to give you a good account of this country when I return which I am sure will also please you, altho’ you would have feared my going. I think you will be amazed by my adventures!

Letter from Katherine Cochrane to her husband Thomas Cochrane, November 10, 1820, Argentina

Much later, in a letter sent to Thomas while he was in Greece and she in France in 1828, she alludes to her husband’s apparently recurrent periods of low spirits and attempts to cheer him:

Why are we not to be happy, at least why not so much so as we have ever been? I cannot understand your state of mind or feeling, what can you dread? There is no fighting now in Greece. You surely cannot be well or such vile blue devils would not hold you so tight…Yet my dearest I would strongly advise you to look on the brighter side, and leave that sad train of thought. Try reading writing walking in fact try anything but thinking.

Letter from Katherine Cochrane to her husband Thomas Cochrane, September 9, 1828, Beaujon, France

And finally, triumph after her years-long efforts to persuade the British government to grant Thomas a pardon after he made powerful political enemies. In the midst of her exultation, she pauses to place credit where credit is due.

“Good news! Good news! You will be happy to hear that it is to be done. I have succeeded beyond my wildest hopes…The will was wanting and where there is no will, there never was a way in the world. I am thankful that I had the will and found the way. I have done more for you than if I had brought you a dower of 50,000 pounds.”

Letter from Katherine Cochrane to her husband Thomas Cochrane, February 17, 1832, Southampton, England

I could practically see Kate taking a victory lap as the words sing from the page.

There are dozens more anecdotes I could pull from her letters, more nuggets of personality to glean. But perhaps these pieces are enough to show you what I see: a woman of great feeling, with steely determination and strong passions. She is pragmatic, loyal, and loving. She is fed up. She is confident and charming. And through it all, she speaks with a voice that is her own.  

And that is something I can relate to.

Continue Reading

Footloose

The weather is breaking. Winter loosens its grip (not that this past winter was particularly cold) and more often, I venture outside by choice rather than necessity. I am reminded of the pleasures of unhurried walking. Of moving slowly, at street-level, without the distractions of a phone or vehicle.

In February, Peter and I traveled to Toronto. We traveled miles on foot in a snowy city, from our hotel in the Yorkville neighborhood to the CN Tower to the Art Gallery of Ontario and back. It is a distance of about nine miles, broken up by coffee and lunch and sightseeing.  

The morning of the walk began quietly. Few people are outside, but gradually the number of pedestrians crescendos so that by nightfall, which comes early, the streets are bustling. Everyone is bundled up with hats and gloves; even some of the dogs wear coats.

At the top of the CN Tower, the views over Lake Erie are breathtaking. A small plane circles over Toronto Islands, descending, skimming the runway, and then lifting off again. I hear voices speaking in languages other than English, and I smile. This is my first international trip since the pandemic. It is strangely comforting to be back among the tourists.

Squads of families roam the galleries of the Art Gallery of Ontario (or AGO, as its more locally known). The noise creates a pleasant background ruckus as Peter and I spend an afternoon discovering Canadian artists that were completely new to us. In between gazing at the artwork, I take to looking at people looking at art. This always fascinates me: what they notice, what they pass by, and the differences between the way adults and children behave.

On our walks, Peter and I passed storefronts and academic buildings and lampposts covered in handbills. There was the pharmacy, brightly lit by the afternoon sun, with a technician’s white lab coat flung across a chair. On the university campus, printed flyers announced sexual health week, advertised tutors, and promoted a philosophy discussion group. In the digital age, where information travels instantly in bits and bytes, perhaps paper still matters.

These are little moments, little kernels of stories that exist in a flash. Kernels that might become something more if we let them.

 

Pittsburgh, PA. Corner of 22nd and Penn.

Back in Pittsburgh, my home city, I start to see things I hadn’t noticed before, like the sign on the door of a Polish deli cautioning shoppers to “watch your dupa.”

Being outside of a car brings you into contact with things. With people. On the T one morning, I’m sitting next to a young mother with a squirming toddler on her lap. I offer her my seat, so she can have her little boy beside her, but she declines. He is fussing, and she is alternately chiding him and attempting to distract him by talking about what can be seen from the trolley’s window.

I think of everything that must be done to get a small child out of the house in the morning: the waking up, the feeding, the dressing, the finding of socks and shows. Brushing of hair and teeth. I want to tell her that she’s doing a great job. But I don’t; unsolicited commentary from a stranger, no matter how well-intentioned, could feel presumptuous.

On an afternoon a few days later, I’m walking the streets near my office, which happens to be near the location of a Planned Parenthood clinic. There is a small group of protestors clustered outside. I see the signs and flyers and want to tell them that Planned Parenthood focuses far more on pregnancy prevention than pregnancy termination. I want to say that they have it twisted, that this is a health clinic and not an abortion factory. I want to say that they should consider finding something else to do instead of hassling a woman trying to get a friggin’ PAP smear on her lunch break.

Confrontation is not compassion, and brochures and Bible verses are not what’s needed. But I don’t say anything, and I walk on.

I think of the age of the city, of the footsteps of those who walked here before me. The natives and the explorers and the soldiers. I think of the people around me now, of the space we share and the slices of time where, just for a moment, we might glimpse a world outside of ourselves.

And I walk on.

Continue Reading

Sorted

I’ve been cleaning house. Part of this is your typical spring cleaning – opening windows, giving surfaces a good dusting, laundering the slipcovers on the sofa. And part of this is a deep dive into an area largely untouched since I moved into the home: my basement.

The beauty of having a basement is being able to put things down there where they are out of sight, and don’t need to be dealt with – at least for awhile. I took full advantage of this when I bought the place. Camping equipment, unneeded furniture, boxes of holiday decorations, gardening tools. Random bits of family memorabilia. An inflatable kayak. Lawn games. All went to the basement.

There is a logic to this: basements are for storage, after all. But they also tend to be magnets for accumulation. At a certain point, I had to ask myself: How much is too much?

There were my college notebooks, filled with neat handwriting that seems almost unrecognizable, and printouts of articles I used for a research paper in 1999. It is hard for me to throw these away, even though I’m unlikely to need to revisit the topic of vector-born diseases anytime soon. I find other school materials as well: class photos, a program from my kindergarten graduation. And items from my teen years, like paystubs from my first “on the books” job at a fast-food restaurant, and a mood ring, safely tucked into the box I’d kept it in since high school.

I find items given to me by family members. There is a kitchen towel that still bears the distinctive scent of my Aunt Stella’s house; smelling it takes me instantly back to my childhood, to hours spent in her living room, eating handfuls of peanut M&Ms, where the furniture was always immaculate, and her wall clock chimed the hours in melodic tones. I hesitate to wash it, unwilling to lose that scent, that memory. I fold it and put it aside.

Some surprises are not as welcome. I’m caught off guard, unprepared for the discovery. With the objects come feelings, and I must sort these too.

I find a photograph of myself smiling in a red ballgown, standing next to the man I used to be married to.

There is the antique sausage grinder, passed down between family members and used for countless batches of homemade kielbasa. Its previous owner was my late cousin; his mother gifted it to me after his untimely death, along with a handwritten recipe. I can’t decide what to do with it. It moves from one side of the basement to the other.

Items like this beg the question: Where do I put it in my house? Where do I fit this stuff into my life?

More abstractly: What remainder of my past will stay in my present? Will become part of my future?

This is not merely cleaning, but emotional cataloging. It is taking stock.

Some things don’t stay. Bag after bag is placed in the trash. I take batches of items to Goodwill and other donation centers. A few I try to sell. And there are some that remain.

There is also space. I look at the vacant shelves, the empty areas in the floor and feel satisfied with a job well done. The house feels lighter. What is in it is, for the most part, chosen rather than simply received.

And isn’t that what a home is for? A place to keep what we hold dear, and to let the rest go.

Addendum: I would be remiss not to mention the heroic levels of deep cleaning that Peter engaged in over the course of this project. He swept, he scrubbed, he wiped and vacuumed and he kept me honest. The basement has never looked better. There’s still work ahead, but of the type that involves exploring possibilities: Beer fridge? Home theater? Yoga room? Because after the dust settles, its time to play.

Continue Reading

Undone

At year’s end, it is tempting to write a retrospective, a list of things done, a catalogue of accomplishments (or at the very least, some interesting statistics.)

Instead, I am going to tell you about what I didn’t do. Or in a few instances, stopped doing. Basically, this is my 2023 quit list

Photo by Linda Eller-Shein: https://www.pexels.com/photo/red-and-yellow-stop-sticker-1749900/

I stopped going to the local book club meetings.

I took a 6-month hiatus from guitar lessons.

I resigned from a non-profit board.

Over the summer, I signed up for an adult kickball league and did not play a single game.

I got off dating apps.

I quit wearing makeup for the most part.

I didn’t do any online teaching, or publish any articles.

I stepped down as the organizer for a Meetup group I’d led for a year and a half.

I could go on. There’s the biography of Hedy Lamarr, begun in January, that has been sitting on my bedside table, neglected. The brown bananas in my freezer, waiting for either ambition or boredom to spur me to transform them into banana bread. The artist’s statement I sketched out this spring and haven’t returned to since.

My reasons for quitting were varied. Sometimes it was simple as limited time. In other cases, it was a matter of reconsidering my priorities, of thinking about what value a particular activity brought to my life. Occasionally I didn’t have a choice; the online program I taught for was discontinued, much to my disappointment.

Even now, as I sit next to my kitchen filled with packages of candied pecans and bags of snickerdoodles and cranberry scones—the outputs of a frenzied weekend of holiday baking—I am glancing sideways at my to-do list and calculating how much remains on it. How little I checked off.

Then I think of how I actually spent my day. Waking to the sound of rain, then snuggling back under the blankets for just a minute longer. Finally getting dressed to venture out for coffee, Rosie in tow. Having a lovely brunch with friends and sharing good food and laughter. Peter’s company. A long afternoon nap.

Those were wonderful things. I would argue those were the most important things I did today. None of them were not on my list.

Life is not made up of lists. Or if it is, that misses the point. After four plus decades on the planet, I am starting to realize this. Not that I’ll ever abandon lists completely; part of me will always thrill to an item checked off, a task accomplished. But they will not be—can not be—how I measure my life.

It’s raining again. The couch calls. I’ll let myself answer.

Continue Reading

Kidding

“Better late than never.” Or so the saying goes. This past fall, I put this aphorism to the test.

But before I get into that, a little backstory.

For most of my life, I’ve been something of a late joiner when it comes to most cultural touchpoints. I was one of the last kids in my middle school class to have a CD player in the household. I didn’t see classic ‘80s films like Goonies or Back to the Future until I was well into high school. I didn’t really listen to Metallica or Madonna or Queen until college.

My younger sister and I, 1985.

Or sometimes the touchpoints went past me altogether. I never owned an album by Prince or Cher or Michael Jackson.*  Never owned a gaming console. In fact, I did not hold a Sega Genesis controller until last week, when I played Sonic for the first time and had my a** handed to me.

Is it delayed nostalgia? A chance to retroactively experience what my peers did in the 1980s, and I’m attempting decades later? Or am I simply looking to reconnect with aspects of myself, buried under the responsibilities of adulthood, that I haven’t visited in a long, long time?

Perhaps it’s all of those things.

So I’ve begun to experiment, to see if I can fill in some of the gaps. I did watch, within the past two months, both E.T. and Halloween for the first time. The experience wasn’t the same as it would have been if I was a kid. But I still felt surprise and empathy with E.T., and the full force of the jump scares in Halloween.

I bought Sonic and a bundle of retro games for my PS4.

Sometimes, for the heck of it, I blow off practicing French on Duolingo simply because it feels so friggin’ good to say no. (I always did my homework as soon as I got home from school, and this small but belated rebellion is deeply satisfying.)

I’ve added Kate Bush and other artists featured on Stranger Things to my Spotify queue.

Which brings me to Stranger Things. Yes, I’m late to the game on this one too. I didn’t watch the first four seasons when they originally aired. But now, with the final season on the horizon and a partner who persuaded me to give the series another shot, I’m knee-deep in the supernatural doings of Hawkins, IN. And along with all of the fine points of the show (the craft, the acting, the storylines, the music, which have been covered to death elsewhere), I’m getting a whopping flashback to the 80s.

Aquanet hairspray. Lite Brites and Spirographs. (You can actually still buy Lite Brites!)

Nancy Wheeler’s reporters’ notebook. (I carried the exact same kind on my early freelance assignments.)

The panic about Dungeons and Dragons.

Being a free-range kid and roaming the neighborhood on bikes.

All. The. Perms. (Yeah, I had one of those too.)

Seeing these things onscreen both triggers memories and reminds me that I while I missed a lot, I didn’t miss everything.

This realization was recently driven home on a gray Pittsburgh afternoon. I stood at the sink washing dishes (at the same time, so as not to appear too responsible, I was listening to Def Leppard and Guns n’ Roses while whipping up a batch of simple syrup for cocktails).

Sunlight managed to sneak through the clouds at just the moment “Sweet Child O’ Mine” blasted from the speaker.

Where do we go?
Oh, where do we go now?
Oh, where do we go?

And I saw that some things, like the right song at the right moment, are timeless.

*I was gifted Thriller this summer, on vinyl, and I’m delighted with it.

Continue Reading

Busted

I’ve had a long history with bikes. Going back to before I could remember, where the evidence is a photo of me scooting around my parents’ kitchen as a toddler on my baby tricycle. Then there was my first real bike, a gift for my 5th birthday (I think). I have recollections of a bubblegum pink frame and training wheels and being pushed up and down the long driveway in the front of the house, learning how to pedal and steer.

Obstacle evasion came next. I spent my early years in Pennsylvania farm country.  My childhood home boasted a small apple orchard planted on a sloping side of the property. I distinctly remember my mother taking me and my bike to the top of this slope and giving me a firm push. I hurtled across the grass through the apple trees, learning how to move between them and – equally important – how to stop before hitting the thick wall of pines beyond.

Years later, I asked my mother (a retired teacher) why she used such unorthodox instruction methods on a kindergartener. In hindsight, the training tactics can look a bit extreme.

“I wanted you to learn,” she shrugged.

Learn I did. Not just basic bicycling techniques, but how not to be too afraid. This would go on to serve me well. For example, when I was 10 years old and hit a raised sewer cover, flipped over my handlebars, and skidded across the dirt and gravel of the road, taking off patches of skin from my right knee to ankle. I got up, dusted off, and walked to the friend’s house that had been my destination. Her mom hosed off my leg and maybe dabbed on some peroxide and sent me on my way. I continued on with my plans to play with my friends. To this day, traces of the scars are still visible.

As I got older, I upped my bicycle game, slowly progressing to nicer, newer, more specialized bikes. From the hand-me-down I was riding at the time of my handlebar somersault to an aqua Huffy (my first bike with gears), then a Bianchi Bobcat (my first legit mountain bike, purchased with money from my first on-the-books job.) And finally, a lipstick red Trek road bike, sleek, light, and beautiful. Built for speed.

I also biked in more exotic locales than the Pennsylvania countryside. I rode beside monuments in Washington D.C., evading drivers, pedestrians, and fellow cyclists. On Bainbridge Island near Seattle, I pedaled on roads that paralleled salmon streams and woods. I dabbled with e-bikes in Southern France, pushing up through winding hills among vineyards.

So I’ve biked around. But nothing could quite prepare me for the adventure of urban biking in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, the city of rivers. The city of bridges. The city of steel.

The summer of 2023 ushered in a series of biking adventures which rolled to an escalating crescendo on September 16th.  

The plan: Cover nearly 40 miles. Stop for lunch and a couple beers. Finish before dark.

The morning arrived and with it, some trepidation. It was the longest ride I’d attempted to date. I don’t know if I felt better or worse after a member of the group produced a bottle of homebrewed Lithuanian honey liqueur. It wasn’t even close to noon but I did a shot like everyone else. Thus fortified, we were on our way.

The ride started with gliding under the late morning shadows on a flat stretch along the river. We pedaled our way down to Point State Park, where we stopped for photographs in front of the fountain. Then we made our way across the river, eventually stopping at our first brewery and lunch at one of Pittsburgh’s most famous, most no-frills delis, Peppi’s.

As the day progressed, we visited a few more breweries, sent texts to friends who’d opted out of the adventure, and wound our way through the varied neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Seeing places at street level, without the insulating walls of a car and going at a speed where it’s possible to notice details, is a wonderfully connective way to travel. You’re not going through a city. You’re being in it.

Gradually we reached Highland Park. We climbed the steps to the reservoir, basking in the afternoon sunlight. Snapped a few more pictures. Congratulated ourselves on time well spent.

The afternoon was easing into evening when we made a last stop before our final ascent. Cait, who’d been a veritable sunbeam throughout the ride (and whose presence, we later determined, had provided a sort of talisman), left to attend a family obligation. In a twist that was truly Pittsburgh, the biggest hill came at the end. There was an impromptu decision for a final round – at this point, I opted for a non-alcoholic sparkling blackberry seltzer – and then we rolled out to face our last climb.

Two things happened almost immediately. First, as I was rounding a turn, I noticed that both my front and back tires felt unmistakably flat. Secondly, no sooner had the realization formed in my mind than the bike tipped, I fell, and both my bike and I skidded across the pavement.

After the momentary shock, I got up to assess the damage. My legs had various cuts and bruises, but what looked to be in far worse shape was my bike. My beloved red Trek lay in a mangled heap. Not only were both of my tires damaged, but my left handlebar had been bent backwards and my right pedal dangled helplessly. The chain had been detached from the derailer. I could walk, but my bike was unrideable.

In the commotion, John, the rider following me, had run over my downed bike, landing both himself and his bike on the ground. Fortunately, neither was injured. But our ride was over. There was only one thing left to do: walk to the end.

So we did, nearly a mile to the top of the last hill, my bike gallantly carried by my boyfriend Peter as I pushed his on the sidewalk. We stopped at the city park at the hill’s crest, taking in the Pittsburgh skyline spread out beneath us. We posed for a final victorious picture. I dabbed at my bloody knee with paper towels offered by strangers.

It wasn’t the way I’d expected the day to end. But the beauty of that September Saturday was that there really hadn’t been any expectations. The day would unfold as fate willed. (That’s not to say there wasn’t a plan. Peter had meticulously figured out the route and itinerary and had even done a test ride in advance.) But what would happen in those golden hours was anyone’s guess.

What happened was this: Seeing new things. Laughing. Being in a space of possibility. Being in a space for adventure. Being, in a sense, a kid again. No agenda, no responsibilities, just needing to get home before dark.

Amazingly, my bike was able to be fully repaired. She is better than new, with sturdy hardcase tires and a black-and-red handlebar wrap that looks sleek. And we are already planning the next adventure.

Continue Reading

Grounded

Five years ago, in what seems a different lifetime, I moved the Pittsburgh. I bought a house (in a nice neighborhood), had a job (with a Fortune 500 company), had a marriage, had future plans. In short, my life had all the right optics.

But what my life had in appearances, it lacked in authenticity. I lived in Pittsburgh. But I didn’t know the city. Didn’t have history with it. And I didn’t know myself, in many ways. That was the lesson of the pandemic: to scrape away ballast, to look deep into the heart of things, to mourn and rebuild. To learn what I couldn’t live without. To learn what I had to go and find again after having lost it. To recognize what I needed to discover for the first time after never having known it at all.

I hunkered down. I watched, I listened, I waited. Shifting one’s center of gravity is slow work. I found a new house, sought new connections, eventually landed a new job. Through murky weeks, months, years, I got to my feet again – literally – and asked myself, “Now what?”

Rosie awaiting action.

On purpose, I walked to the post office, the used bookstore, an independent coffee shop. Not because I needed those services; I needed the interactions. Sometimes I took my German Shepherd Rosie with me, and I found that dogs are really the best icebreakers.

In short order, Rosie charmed the local bakery into giving her free cookies. She then won the hearts of the staff at the corner florist, who allow her into the store and dote on her with pets. Her most recent conquest is the clerks at the state store, who give me handfuls of treats to feed her and say what a good dog she is.

And over time, little tendrils of community formed. I learned my neighborhood, on foot. I saw the house with the potbellied pigs on Windermere Avenue, which is something of a local legend. I was shouted at from a vehicle and looked up, startled, to see it was a woman I knew from one of the area businesses. Laughing, I waved back. I saw restaurants open and close and discussed the changes with fellow residents. I had random conversations with elderly neighbors from my front porch, an experience which felt both novel and old-fashioned. Each of these a step, a thread, that brought me a bit closer to knowing and being known.

From there I ventured further afield. Some trips took me to parts of the city that were new to me: a trendy rooftop bar, microbreweries, parks where I kayaked or hiked or rode my bike. I revisited places I knew from visits to Pittsburgh during my childhood: Schenley Park, the Carnegie Museums. The Strip District with its wholesale businesses and rapidly gentrifying residential element. And I saw Pittsburgh in all its maddening charm: the nonsensical public transit system, the hills, the rivers, the vernacular, the people who will wear flip flops in 30-degree weather. The vendors at Trader Jack’s flea market, the hipsters in East Liberty, the old Italian guys who commandeer tables at La Prima coffee and gossip and play cards for hours.

Summer Soul Line Dancing, June 21, 2023.

It came to this: not just conversations and places, or experiences, but a feeling that I was part of something (again). Finding causes. Finding people who cared about the world and wanted to do something about it. Finding organizations where my give-a-d*mn could find a home, and fellow company. Finding that it was OK to be hopeful, to believe in better, because I wasn’t the only one. I hold those discoveries close, as buoys in dark times.

I don’t know when it was that I finally fell to earth. It could have been the morning at Enrico’s Bakery, when I was blatantly cut in line by an entitled Boomer (I called him out – he ignored me); I figure you can’t really say you lived in a place until something happens to royally piss you off. It might have been during a session of yoga at a soaring Presbyterian church, with light streaming through the windows and casting brilliant colors onto the transept floor. And it struck me that no matter what anyone in that room believed, we had all found our way to the same space. Could have happened when I found gifts left on my doorstep: a bouquet of flowers, treats for my pets, a container of fresh-picked blueberries. Such gestures of kindness never ceased to leave me surprised, and touched. Maybe it was seeing the amateur astronomer on Mt. Washington who brings out his telescope and invites passerby to look through it. Perhaps it was the June evening I spent dancing with strangers when I heard “Lady Soul” by the Temptations for the first time and the city skyline shimmered behind us. Or a hot afternoon next to the Mon River, sitting on a driftwood log, catching my breath and feeling a moment about to shift.

So while I’m not sure what point marked the precise threshold of coming back, I can say with gratitude that I am. Present. Breathing deep. Grounded.

Continue Reading

Anchoring, Part 2

I am sitting in the main branch of the Erie County Library. I can’t remember the last time I sat in a library, in person, with a stack of notebooks and my laptop computer. It feels wonderful. The quiet is exquisite. But this room is not silent – there is the distant hum of a machine, the rustling of papers at the reference desk, the tap of my keyboard.

Earlier I chatted with friendly, elderly German at the gift shop. We started talking about a German comedy show (Last Man Laughing), then humor in general, then spoofs on 1970s variety shows. From there the conversation moved to HEMA, world politics, WWII. We discussed the lack of pens for sale in the gift shop (he loans me one). I ask about the German word for cheesy. He thinks for a moment, then answers “kitschy.” Yes, English uses kitschy too – or more accurately, absorbed it from the German.

You might say I’m on vacation, of sorts. It is the first week of May, the coldest I can remember in decades. There is rain. Temperatures are nominally above freezing. Wind and gray skies. Snow flurries.

But I want to go outside, and so I do. A short, frigid run from the lakeshore cabin where I’m staying to the main street of my hometown. Past the tiny beach, with the sign indicating that no lifeguard is on duty. Past the old cemetery with 19th-century graves and their old-fashioned names carved into the stone. One of the markers, I remember, bears the words, “Killed at Gettysburg.” I run past the trees with new leaves, over a scattering of pink dogwood blossoms lying on the damp sidewalk. I dodge puddles on the pavement.

In times of transition, I return here. To my roots, as much as I have any. I return to incubate myself in the familiar.

On another afternoon I walk along Lake Erie, the wind blowing my hair in crazed directions, the waves roaring as if I am at the ocean. No one else is on the beach, aside from a single pedestrian with a dog, off in the distance. I turn away, walk so that I can face the breakwaters and tide, look at the water hissing out over the sand as it is drawn again into the lake. I am in solitude, I am alive, and the moment is mine alone.

I think of how rooms of books light something in me. Smells of spring light something in me: the rain, the leaves, the soil, the blossoms. Being next to water and tides lights something in me. Despite the cold, I run May-mad.

A day’s agenda might look something like this:

Coffee, early.

Back to bed.

Journal.

Go outside.

Eat. Watch a loon swim. Allow myself to be surprised. Allow myself to be unproductive.

I read an article on social media and banking risk, then another on the US Constitution and presidential pardons. I browse Pinterest. I am both exhilarated and quiet.

In the sense of linear trajectory, I’ve come to a stop. I’m in between jobs, having been let go after the end of a lengthy contract. And for Americans, being out of a job is synonymous with being without purpose. Without value.

But I cannot believe that this interval of time, these days, are wasted. I am simply paying attention to other things.

From my cabin I have an excellent view of wildlife. Herons, a pair of eagles, loons, geese, goldfinches. A muskrat that popped from the lake early one morning to chew vegetation along the water’s edge. I smile at all of them, glad to be back among wild things, glad even, in a way, for the wild weather: it makes the roof, the heat, the warm bed all the more precious.

If there is a lesson anywhere, it is this: I am learning how to live in the in-between spaces. I fall to pieces. I fall into peaces. Slowly, I let myself fall into place.

Continue Reading

2022: A Retrospective

In writing reflections on a past event – especially an entire year, especially on a digital platform – I struggle to find the right tone. Too bright, and it might feel fake, toxically positive, or even arrogant. Too somber, and it can come across as a slough of negativity.

I’ll do my best to steer between those two extremes. There were good things, hard things, sad things. I felt friendships shift and fade. I was ghosted (twice) and stood up (once). The relationship I was most excited about, a tantalizing multi-month series of dates during which I caught hope – and feelings – ended via a cold text. I experienced professional challenges that required every bit of my patience and discipline to navigate. Despite being drafted in Las Vegas, my fantasy football team did not make it to the playoffs. And for the last night of 2022, I attended a party where the highlight of the event was thumbing through a biography of the Brontës.

And yet. And yet. I am a stubborn optimist, and that isn’t all of the story.

  • At midlife, I took on spring break for the first time. It was hot and sunstruck and a little disorienting. In fact, it became just the adventure I needed.
  • In that vein, I decided that it was never too late to let a little rebellion into my life. Guitar playing, obviously. But there was also the winter night I laughed and listened to punk in my date’s pickup in a parking lot. Afternoons spent loitering in public parks like a delinquent. Numerous small trespasses against propriety: the flick of a lighter, the use of the f-bomb, a refusal to take up less space.
  • I finally watched Sleepless in Seattle. I devoured Ozark, which made me cry. And Bridgerton, which didn’t. Also both seasons of Sanditon just for the heck of it. (I have yet to see E.T. or any of the Rocky films.)
  • I went to the opera. Alone. (It was great.)
  • I swam 20,000 yards at the local pool. My tan was killer.
  • I emerged from comparative isolation and got busy re-building my social life. I took over a Meetup group, renamed it, and nearly tripled the membership. I went on 22 first dates*. I got new business cards. I attended book club discussions after having actually read the book.
  • I made a few new friends. In adulthood, that’s no small feat. We need people to laugh with. People to speak our truths to. To eat burritos with, go to for advice, share a hug. If anything, 2022 taught me not to take good connections for granted.
  • I got a new writing desk. In fact, that where I am typing this right now.
  • And I finally started to learn that my feelings are not liabilities I need to repress, but signals to pay attention to.

Of course, there are things that haven’t changed. I still miss my motorcycle. I still have my fascination with Eminem. There are still my wildling cats that make me laugh, and the books I turn to for comfort like a quilt.

As far as what’s ahead, I don’t have resolutions so much as intentions. I want to get back to Paris. I want to finally finish my damn novel. I want to get through all of “Tonight, Tonight” so that it sounds – and feels – like a song. Plus, the Les Paul guitar I’ve been eyeing.

And there’s this:

We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

Joseph Campbell

*Defined as 1:1 in-person, predesignated meetings. Video chats and random unassigned hangouts not included in total.

Continue Reading
1 2 3 7