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Mind over vermin

Christine McConnell / Instagram

“I am no longer ert, for I have lost my ertia.”

I lay awake at 4:30 a.m., reflecting on all the bridges I’ve burned. No, nothing so spectacular or drama-worthy; it’s more like I’ve let those bridges decay and collapse out of neglect. I never intended to do such, just like the designers of the Tacoma Bridge never imagined it might disintegrate with the whistling of the wind. I just…I don’t know. I turned around to do something, looked up and saw that it was fifteen years later.

I have an unsent birthday letter to Eli burning a hole in my purse, incriminating me every time I brush past it to get out my wallet or keys or whatever. It is so late being sent that the address on the outside is no longer valid, because my ex-boyfriend is a globe-trotting hobo and I don’t even know what country he will be in a month from now.

I fear all my old friends are angry with me because I don’t keep up with them enough. I had an idea to reconnect with people by doing a repeat of a birthday event I had years ago: ask people for stories, in lieu of presents or booze. So I have created a Facebook event demanding that my friends use their precious free time to entertain me, and really only just a few have accepted. In the dim light of the early insomniac hour, I see how obnoxious this stunt must seem, to someone who hasn’t heard from me in months.

I’ve spent months (nearly a year) throwing dollars and time I don’t really have at a hobby which will never translate into anything more than that. I want to be happy for my new friends (?), but the petty part of me is demoralized to see people who started in the scene at the same time, or even more recently than me, be awesome and funny and have shows and fans and respect. Whereas with me, it’s a constant struggle not to bum the fuck out of everyone in the room with the darkness clouding my brain. I was actually invited to be in an independent troupe, but quit yesterday; I’d started dreading going to practice and often left feeling miserably unfunny. (A friend of mine suggested that I try doing scenes while bawling my eyes out as an anti-comedy schtick – however, I am not sure this troupe I just quit, mostly comprised of “shock jock DJ in the morning dudes,” would be down with art-shit).

Every boy I have met post-Russian has either been interested and then quickly un-interested in me, or never really interested in me except theoretically, since I guess I serve as a fairly convenient pseudo-girlfriend. I am actually okay with this for now, since I don’t think I have my head quite clear enough to level up to actual-girlfriend quite just yet. But I feel immature and guilty for being okay with this. Oh, and also the not having a 401k thing, or even enough money to buy a proper sofa. I’ll be thirty-one next week. I have perhaps aged out of the decade in which I should reasonably be tolerating half-assed boys and temporary furnishings.

I obsess over the mice in my kitchen cupboards, scattering droppings and urine over triple-bagged quinoa and wild rice, sidestepping the humane trap my roommate and I have peanut-buttered for them, while my cat snores in the other room. The mice know what they want from life, and are constrained to an elegant set of actions. No complications, no distractions. Just go with the grain.

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Check mate

At some point today I realized that I was simultaneously avoiding, at bare minimum, five different people – rendering it impossible for me to go anywhere in this city, except right back to my home.

I’m thinking I might need to take a slight break from humanity:

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Living History

(yes, I’ve resurrected this from the dead! Zombie blog walks the earth, once again.)

I’m in a new(ish) city and scraping myself back together after a rather harsh break-up, so I’ve been out and about and meeting people like it’s my second job. Hence the willingness to go up to people whom I ordinarily wouldn’t approach, and engage in small-talk – something Past Me would have dreaded immensely.

Of course, even Past Me might have made an exception for this lady:

knitting and pizza go together like gangbusters

A local character I encountered at a pizza parlor.

She said that what she was knitting was a shawl, and when my friend complimented her on the use of the Orioles’ colors, she said that the shawl did not have anything to do with the local sports team. She’s 82 years old and has been knitting since she was nine. “I knit too,” I offered.

“You’re too young to knit!”

“But I’m older than nine!”

I asked if I could take her picture – she assented, and no she wasn’t angry, despite what it looks like in the photo (that’s what people look like mid-sentence) – and she insisted that I have a name associated with her photo, and she told me what it was. I shook her hand before my friend and I ran out to catch an improv show. I was pretty enchanted by this lady and her moxie – rocking a homemade outfit straight out of the good ol’ days, publicly knitting (also publicly filing her nails in the pizza parlor, which was a little less enchanting). This woman dared to be so quintessentially herself, out in a world that looked so incongruous to her. I posted this picture on Instagram and Facebook, presenting her as an example of Baltimore’s charming quirkiness, people liked it, and that was that.

Except that I couldn’t just leave it as a sweet, amusing vignette. Perceptive readers will notice that I haven’t told you this woman’s name. I did what any curious modern person with Internet access would do, and Googled her name, to uncover this piece of history from the Baltimore Sun:

[She] looked very much like a throwback to a time when being white was so right in America that the phrase “free, white and 21″ wasn’t even considered offensive.

The article concerns a curious incident in which a house (very near to the pizzeria) was raided, revealing “80 pounds of gunpowder, 14 rifles, eight handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and other [handmade] weapons.” The owner of the house was arrested, and it turned into a legal kerfuffle because of controversy surrounding the warrant for the raid. It became a media sensation because of all the guns, and also because the couple were white supremacists. (!)

There’s very little doubt that the D.E.W. described in the article is the same person depicted above in my hastily-applied Instagram filter: she’s described as “clad in a blue denim-type dress that dropped nearly to the ankles, while sporting a matching hat that had an Amish or Mennonite quality. She wore a red bandana tied around her neck. A red shawl draped from her shoulders.” (I’m guessing, though this might be a stretch, that this shawl may have been hand-knit).

Further Googling uncovered a transcript of an interview with this dear little old lady on Stormfront, a notorious Internet hangout for racists, which I’ll not link to here. She describes an incident in which she was assaulted with a broken beer bottle. These are the words she says: “once you have been attacked by a black it changes your entire outlook toward that race of people. Ever since then I have wanted to do something about it.” She then started actively campaigning for “Pro-White” groups and so forth.

I was floored and maybe a little crushed. I’ve known about Baltimore’s fractious history with race, and I know that it permeates nearly everything to do with the functioning (or lack thereof) of this city. I guess I was naive in assuming that people at least pretend not to openly value racism. She said those words in 2003 — over ten years ago. Did she still believe these things now? I shook this woman’s hand! Here I was, a little chirpy Asian woman out and about in the company of an older white man. What did she think of me?

If I encounter her again (which I likely will, because I didn’t get a chance to try the pizza at Matthew’s and I’ve heard it’s fabulous), I can’t leave well enough alone – I want to know whether or not her world view has shifted or has solidified in this last decade. It put me in mind of a fascinating recent episode of This American Life, concerning Asa Carter, former racist speechwriter of George Wallace turned faux-Native American memoirist and writer of books espousing peace and harmony among the races. Do people ever really change?

The picture shifts; in soft light it is a delightful expression of eccentricity and joyful being. Shadows and past traumas darken the edges. I showed it to a coworker of mine who grew up in that neighborhood. She said she didn’t recognize the woman, but she recognized that patterned bag in the lower right hand corner – this bag is commonly distributed at homeless shelters. Did D.E.W. lose her home after that raid? What happened to her? Everything about her seems so sad, so old and so wedded to a toxic past that there can’t possibly be room for any present that involves a black president, or a chirpy Asian girl yakking it up with a white man in an Italian pizza parlor staffed with Mexicans.

Even so, should I run into her again, I think I will try to be as effortlessly friendly to her as I was during our first encounter. It’s really the only way to be. And I admit, I do have this weirdly positive, naive faith in the power of little demonstrations of kindness to wear down habits of hatred. Maybe.

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Respectfully yours

What does it mean for you?

Find out what it means to me.

I am alive! I’ve just been cramming activities into this past month and a half to try and put pages behind me, and write some new ones. It’s working, seemingly (I’ll get back to you on that). I started taking improv classes when I moved here as a lark, and eight months later I’m still in it. I even tried out for the local improv troupe, and though I didn’t get in, I felt good about my audition. I’ve been eating lunch with co-workers on a regular basis, instead of at my desk with Facebook / Reddit as my only company.

I’ve even been to a few “new to town” meetups, by myself, which is terrifying until you realize that everyone else present is in the same situation as you: they are new(ish), they don’t know anyone, and they want to make friends. Maybe even with you!

I am navigating new terrain, and – just as with Korea – it’s taking time to figure out the cultural mores of this environs. I don’t feel as though I have found my tribe here yet, or if that even exists in Baltimore. Here, I don’t have a built-in cohort with the same schedule and daily challenges over which to bond. My two work friends? They are very different from me, to the extent that though we share a common language, I have the hardest time understanding.

Today’s lesson: a musing on the word “respectful,” and what that means to people. Does it mean something different to me?

Case in point: my coworker was relating a story about walking her dog with another (male) friend with his dog at a park, when they happened upon a gorgeous (her words) jogger. The jogger noticed that her dog had been injured, and happened to be a veterinary specialist; all the while, the jogger addressed the male friend, even though my friend was the one holding that dog.

My other coworker’s reaction: “aww! How respectful!” She cooed, as though this were the most chivalrous thing.

“I know, right?” said the original coworker, and they swooned together. As is sometimes the case with this crew, I felt a bit like a Martian, or maybe Data trying to parse the emotions blowing up on the deck around him. Respectful?! Was this really swoon-worthy? If it were me, I’d maybe feel a little miffed at being ignored during ‘man talk,’ especially if the talk concerned my dog.

That got me thinking back to last week’s meetup, where I met some lovely people, including an incredibly gorgeous man who did not show any particular interest in me, which I am totally okay with as this keeps any resultant ‘crush’ firmly in the realm of the unattainable.

I had been standing around chatting with him and another couple who had recently moved to Baltimore. I asked if Gorgeous Guy would like a drink. “No thanks, I’m just sticking to water,” he said.

“Ah,” said the other guy. “How respectful!” He went off to the bar, before I had a chance to follow up with “huh? What do you mean by that?” Cause honestly, I have no idea, and am totally intrigued by his choice of words. Is it disrespectful to be drinking at a happy hour themed meetup? Should I not be drinking, if I am to seem respectable? (I guess these two hobbies are often at odds).

Now, I have long suspected that I have some catching up to do in the social department. (Case in point: I am at my sister’s house in my pajamas blogging, instead of doing whatever it is that people do to make friends). I am working on that, but crucial to social development is having, as a baseline, the same definitions of words and general standards of behavior.

Does “respectful” mean something completely different in this world? And if so, have I inadvertently disrespected people by being blissfully unaware of certain rules? Did I just bring meatloaf to a vegan potluck? Is that why nobody’s talking to me?

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