Our train from Paddington was delayed by twenty-some minutes, which meant we missed the connection at Swansea to Manorbier.
“Don’t worry,” the agent told us, checking our tickets. “Talk to someone in an orange vest, and they’ll take care of you.”
We found the people in orange vests, who huddled, discussed, and herded those of us who were heading in the direction of Manorbier into two waiting taxis.
Will, in the early planning stages of this trip, had talked about renting a car at Heathrow and making the drive to Wales, and I was at turns skeptical and discouraging and firm. We’d been to Wales once before and I remembered the roads to be narrowing and winding, with towering hedgerows and nearly incomprehensible roundabouts, not to mention the added challenge of driving on the “wrong” side of the road.
Our taxi driver, in the tradition of taxi drivers everywhere, was in a hurry—he tailgated, he sped up to pass, he zipped between lanes and took the roundabouts at a speed that made me, in the backseat, long for a handful of Dramamine.
Views from the train...
On the radio:
September by Earth, Wind and Fire
Stuck in the Middle with You by Stealers Wheel
The driver’s GPS led us to Manorbier, the tiny town where we’d be staying for the wedding. He drove down the narrow road (but that describes all roads in Wales, at least from what I’ve seen of the southwest)—that lead to the train station, pulled forward, reversed, and said apologetically, “I’ll have to let you off here. There’s no carpark.”
We scrambled out and stood with our suitcases and the side of the road, just beyond what had to be the world’s tiniest train station, with the world’s tiniest platform, which was currently deserted. The driver sped off, and we looked at each other. It felt like we were standing in the middle of a road at the edge of the world, which I guess we were.
About two minutes later, a van came around a corner and we recognized Sadie behind the wheel. The van, a rental for the wedding weekend, reminded her of the A-Team. In the passenger seat was a woman with wild red curls. She opened the door, stepped out with her arms raised above her head and said (this only works if you can imagine it in a British accent): “Hello! I’m Jane!”
And we were headed toward our final destination.
(From my parents, taking care of Baxter, the beloved aging beagle and LG, the high-strung rat terrier).
Dad: Get enough rest for your knee.
Dad: LG is making a pest of herself on my lap.
Dad: Baxter concluded another walk and did not lose a shoe yet.
Dad: Hope you’re not at the Mandarin Hotel in London… because it’s burning.
Mom: We had a nice walk. The getting ready was the hard part. I naturally put LGs leash on wrong and had to redo, much to her consternation. One of Bs little boots came off on his first step onto the porch, so it was back into the house to try again. I was sweating before we left.
We lost a day somewhere over the Atlantic, and time lost meaning.
It was nearly 24 hours from leaving our house in Modesto, BARTing from Hayward to SFO, running from one terminal to another, flying to Seattle, flying to Rekyjavik, flying to London, taking the train to Paddington Station, and dragging our luggage to our hotel a few blocks away. Within two minutes, we’d collapsed into bed.
“Remember we can’t sleep that long, or we’ll be a mess tonight,” Will said. Or maybe I dreamed it, because I was already asleep.
Will at Paddington Station.
“We’ve upgraded you to a family room,” the receptionist at the hotel said, handing over a key. There was a life-sized cutout of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle next to the counter.
The family room was down a hallway and a steep flight of stairs, tucked into a forgotten corner of the hotel. We opened the door to a room crammed with beds—apparently designed for six family members who like to be all up in each other’s business. The twin beds were perfect for holding an open suitcase, though, and the slightly-smaller-than-double beds were perfect for one each.
This was no time for romance.
Night’s agenda: food (Italian, seasoned with incredible hunger), wine, a walk through some charming neighborhoods, a stroll through Hyde Park. Back at the hotel, we turned on the television, having been alerted by my father that a hotel in London was burning (but not, apparently, ours).
“I’m going to watch for at least an hour,” I said from my less-than-double bed. “I don’t want to wake up at four a.m.”
That was the last thing I remembered before falling asleep.
In Hyde Park (with a serious lack of sleep happening).
Sometimes travel makes me sad.
While Will showered, I sat in Norfolk Square with my stomach rumbling, last night’s early dinner disappeared like a mirage. It was a tiny rectangular park, running the length of a street lined with hotels. Ours, the Cardiff Hotel, was behind me. Paddington Station was close by, a five-minute walk.
At first, it was just me and some pigeons, and then a very determined man with a leaf blower began to remove some of the park’s natural charm, and some workers gathered to smoke and rib each other over what I can only assume was a football match.
No, the sad part of traveling for me is realizing that these moments, ordinary or extraordinary—are fleeting. This moment will not exist again—or anyway, not with me in it. Soon, my husband, freshly showered, will come around the corner, reading to head to breakfast. Then I will return to my room, repack my toiletries and zip my bag and walk the five minutes to Paddington Station for a train to Wales, and this moment will exist only here, only now.
On our flight to Seattle, Will had the middle seat. I recognized the woman who took the aisle seat next to him; she was the woman who held up the line at the check-in counter about an hour earlier, when we were panicking (or at least, when I was panicking) about getting through the security checkpoint and making it to the gate on time. We’d already had ourselves a little adventure that included Will walking very fast (and me running, and still far behind him) from the International Terminal to Terminal 2, each of us dragging about 40 pounds of luggage.
I was still sweating when we boarded, my bra uncomfortably damp under my tank top and cardigan, my cheeks burning. Slap a blood pressure cuff on my arm and my reading, I was sure, would be through the roof. We’d bought overpriced water bottles once we were through security, and I was sipping mine like it was a delicacy. It was. It would have to last me until the food service cart came rumbling our way at least an hour later with a thimble-sized plastic cup.
Facing out the window, trying to determine if my luggage was among the heap being loaded into the bowels of the aircraft, I heard Will say, “So where are you headed?”
(A side note: There are introverts and then there are extroverts, and I’ll have you guess which type Will is.)
The woman replied, loud enough for me and the entire back of the plane to hear: She was heading to an Interplanetary Peace Conference in Geneva. It turned out she was a world renown expert on alien abduction, and also a hypnotherapist. Over the next hour and a half, she talked of regressing people. She mentioned an alien implant that had been deeded her in a will. She was writing a book. She’d been on Coast to Coast, not with Art Bell, but with the other guy. Last week, she said, she’d been in Canada. Later she mentioned that she’d just come from an Indian reservation where there had been a Bigfoot sighting, but the witness had been drunk and disorderly and landed himself in jail, so she would have to return to the reservation later to debrief him.
Will asked her about Betty and Barney Hill (“one of the most notorious cases of alien abduction,” she confirmed) and mentioned the X-Files episode of La Chupacabra, which took place in Patterson, a small town near ours in the Central Valley.
She made a note of the name and said she would plan a research trip there in the future.
At one point she laughed loudly at something she herself had said, and the woman in the seat in front of me turned around and asked her to be quiet. Not missing a beat and with what I thought was an admirable display of chutzpah, she handed the woman in front of her a business card.
And then we were in Seattle.
I’m sitting in the backseat of my own car on the way back to the Valley from a production of Ragtime at the Berkeley Playhouse when I realize that there is a deep and aching pain in my left breast, and that if I’m being honest with myself, it’s not a new pain. It’s been there for a while—days? Weeks? As long as a month? I’ve had a tenuous grip on time this semester—it’s been marked by readings and book club appearances and physical therapy for my knee and lesson plans and always, the essays waiting to be graded, and when I start to count backwards, thinking of the pain’s first appearance, the days are slippery, time that elusive thing rounding the corner just out of my grasp.
I’m in the car with my husband, a good friend, her friend, and her friend’s girlfriend. In other words: A person I’ve loved and known for more than half of my life, a person I’ve grown close to over the last year, an acquaintance, and a stranger. The realization of the pain, the gnawing sense of its significance, is therefore something I can’t, or anyway don’t, share.
Instead, I sit silently in the backseat, and I can feel myself drawing in, pulling tight, my own body, the bones and sinews and cells that are still Team Paula, closing ranks.
Cancer is when the cells in your body divide uncontrollably. It is, literally, when your own body turns on you.
Certain lifestyle factors make me a risk, as well as certain genetic factors, and it’s impossible not to know this. My familial medical history is a mess, a complicated chart I have to fill out every time I see a different member of the medical profession. I’ve checked the boxes: paternal grandmother: breast, cervical and bone. One paternal cousin. Two maternal aunts. Maternal grandmother, 95 and still sharp as a tack: leukemia, a cancer of the blood.
I have colleagues with cancer. I attended a memorial service last week for a friend who died of lung cancer, a non-smoker, if it matters in this narrative. My father-in-law beat kidney cancer. My brother-in-law is currently in remission.
It is impossible not to know these things at a deep, yes, cellular level.
Still, a week passes before I call to make an appointment for a mammogram. It’s like the concept of Schrodinger’s cat – until I receive a form of medical proof, the cancer both is and isn’t present in my body.
But I’m not sleeping well. My breast aches, and sleeping on my left side is impossible. I’m afraid to take something for the pain, afraid to hide something I’m supposed to see. Night after night I read by the silvery glow of my Kindle, burning through thrillers real and fictional. One dog is snoring on the floor next to the bed, and the other is entwined between my legs, where she has slept every night for the last five years, since we found her on the street and took her into our home. I listen to my husband’s breathing and think that life is such a beautiful thing, so simple and so fucking precious.
The earliest known appearances of cancer, Wikipedia tells me, date to 1600 BC.
Back then, there was no mammography, no white-coated technicians, no HMO or PPO or health savings plan or open enrollment period.
Medical treatments in 1600 BC were probably indistinguishable from torture methods.
During a mammogram, a technician guides you to place your breast and much of the surrounding breast tissue onto a lower plate, and then the upper plate comes down and basically the breast is flattened while an image is taken. If you have not experienced this, or cannot imagine it (perhaps because you do not have breasts), imagine another sensitive area of your body being flattened while you hold your breath and remain immobile, the sides of your dressing gown flapping open, gooseflesh forming on your limbs.
“Hold it, hold it, don’t move, one more second… okay,” the technician says, and the plates pull slowly apart while your body sighs with relief.
This isn’t my first rodeo; I know the drill. Tie the loose flaps of the gown back together and sit in the waiting area with other anxious women and months-old copies of US Weekly and Better Homes and Gardens. Pretend this is a normal thing. Pretend my sore breast isn’t screaming from being compressed into a pancake. Think about something else. Think about how this summer I’m going to sleep in every freaking day if I feel like it.
There’s more to this story… still to be written.
But the most important part is that the mammogram was negative (which in medical terms, of course, is a good thing).
What I love about NetGalley is that I can take a chance on new (or new to me) authors and discover books I might not otherwise encounter. (Do you love books? Do you write reviews? Check out www.netgalley.com.) That was the case with Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown (St. Martin’s Press, 3/18).
So many things are done well in this book, but I’ll start with the atmospheric setting. When I read a book, I want to feel like I’m there. I want to be able to picture the topography, the vegetation, the weather; I want to understand the era through the clothes and cars and tools and technology. Brown does this on just about every page – I never forget it’s the 1950s, and that Howl Mountain (in North Carolina) is the setting of a whiskey-running empire at a time when the federal government (the revenuers) are cracking down—and looking for their share of the pie. There’s Granny, the local medicine woman who knows just where to dig the roots for her potions; there’s the snake-handling church that meets in the old service station, the weekend car races; there’s Rory Docherty, back from the Korean War with a wooden leg.
Reading this book feels a bit like taking a master-class in characterization and plot. The characters are clearly drawn; their wants and decisions and choices bump up against each other in ways that continually move the plot forward.
My thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and the author for this delicious find.
Also, this week, I finished I Liked by Life by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, 1/17)—an audio read that kept me going on my weekly commute.
The short take: In the first third of the book, I was trying to decide if I hated all of the characters and if I should just switch back to the next installment of the Charles Lennox series by Charles Finch, which has quickly become my go-to. But, I stuck with it and was more than rewarded. In fact, by the time I was in the final fifteen minutes of the story, I was a happy, sobbing mess.
Fabiaschi tells the story of a Massachusetts family in the aftermath of (wife, mother) Maddie’s suicide, with workaholic husband Brady and typical self-centered teenager Eve coming to some hard realizations about themselves. The story is also multi-generational, asking tough questions about the impact of family and upbringing, and whether we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of others.
The audio is really good on this one, too.
This week I mainly painted (my living room… I’m no Van Gogh or anything), binge-watched HGTV shows where things were going far worse in their major renovations than in my little paint-splotched corner of the world, and devoured I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara.
Even though the subject of this book is right in my wheelhouse (example: in between episodes of Property Brothers, I did occasionally peek at the ID channel to see whether I’d already seen this particular installment of American Monsters), somehow I hadn’t heard of Michelle McNamara, a writer and creator of the blog True Crime Diary, and I might never have seen her work if I hadn’t heard the news of her untimely death a few years ago, in her sleep, at age 46.
This is my loss, and it is a tremendous one.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is really a hybrid, a combination of notes, essays and interviews compiled by McNamara, interspersed with some autobiographical content that explains, in part, her obsession with the Golden State Killer. This was McNamara’s name for the serial rapist, killer and prowler who stalked various communities up and down the state (Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, Contra Costa county, Goleta, Irvine, and others). Other names for this perpetrator include the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker (not to be confused with the other Nightstalker).
I don’t think this is much of a spoiler: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark doesn’t solve the case, nor does it narrow a vast and aging amount of evidence to a few specific names. What it does is detail the crimes—the path of terror this man wreaked on victims and their families. He is the unnamed shadow haunting every page of the story, elusive and shape-shifting, his crimes only linked years after the fact when law enforcement agencies began sharing information and the CODIS database became an essential crime-solving tool.
Also, it brings to life the woman behind the scenes: a woman who was haunted by an unsolved case from her childhood, and whose obsession with cold cases brought her to the GSK. In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, she interviews cold case detectives, tours neighborhoods and crime scenes, gathers a startling amount of evidence, and narrows in on certain theories. After her unexpected death, some of her crime-solving friends stepped in to look through the mountains of files and bring closure to her part of the story.
Recommended for: Anyone who can name upwards of five serial killers without the aid of Google, anyone who watches the ID Channel despite somewhat cheesy reenactments, anyone who has ever been obsessed with an unsolved mystery, anyone who worries about her own obsessions.
In short: Anyone like me.
Square footage of living/dining room: I never actually measured, but once I started painting, it kept getting larger.
Audiobooks listened to: 2 (Nomadland by Jessica Bruder and The September Society by Charles Finch)
Shows on HGTV watched for inspiration: at least one but possibly four or five (the plotline was roughly the same)
Times I changed my mind about the paint color: 3
Times the roller pad got stuck on the roller and I chucked the whole thing in the trash: 1
Trips to Home Depot: 6
Times I got the grumpy/judgy paint cashier at Home Depot: 2
Times I cursed myself for starting the project: 7
Times I considered putting the house on the market “as is”: 2
Times adorable beagle leaned up against wet paint: 1
Times said beagle blocked passageway while I was carrying a loaded paint roller: 132
Times I moved the ladder and it clunked and the somewhat highstrung rat terrier thought the house was under attack: 284
Times I put the dogs outside and they immediately barked to be let back in: 87
Times I went up and down the ladder: a million? Conservative estimate, based on groaning of my knee.
Steps recorded on Fitbit for walking back and forth in my living room on Saturday: 13,000
Times I went through the drive-thru of Taco Bell with paint on my nose and didn’t realize it until later: 1
Times I got paint on my shoe and couldn’t get it off and just colored over it with a black Sharpie: 2
Times I said “this is my last time painting this room”: many
But hey! It’s done now. Except for one little thing I still need to touch up...
*numbers are approximate
The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian
Confession: I remember loving Midwives, but that was in 1997 which was (gulp) more than twenty years ago. In the meantime, I’ve acquired some of Bohjalian’s other books, but somehow haven’t managed to crack the covers. The Flight Attendant has officially changed that for me.
What a book.
In the opening scene (so not a spoiler), Cassandra wakes up in a hotel room in Dubai next to the man she slept with the night before. This is a pattern she has repeated in cities all over the world, in various stages of alcoholic stupor—except this time, the man next to her has been brutally murdered.
The Flight Attendant is my favorite kind of thriller, with multiple threads and plenty of things I didn’t see coming, as well as a morally compromised and unapologetic narrator. This kind of narrator has been done before, sure; but where the narrator in Girl on the Train was somewhat grating, Cassandra hits the right wrong notes, if that makes any sense—she’s not looking for pity from anyone, and she owns her sometimes appalling decisions, even when as a reader you might feel she’s on some kind of suicide mission.
This one kept me turning pages and left me completely satisfied.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
Warning: This book will probably make you hate Amazon.
Also warning: You should probably go check on your 401k, and while you’re at it, vote to make sure no one snatches your Social Security from under your feet.
This book is an in-depth look at the America’s nomads—particularly, people in their 60s to 80s who have been forced out of jobs, priced out of the housing market, and have taken to the open road in search of seasonal work and a quiet place to park the camper for the night. I’d read Bruder’s feature “The End of Retirement” in Harper’s a few years back, and approached this one eagerly. (Although note: I’m listening to the audio book, and the narrator isn’t my favorite. Read the book if you can.)
Bruder gives an insider’s look at this nomadic community as she follows them from campsites to jobs to campsites, eventually acquiring her own live-in van. There is some of the romance that comes with being on the road (think: Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley), but also some of its despair (also Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath), as well as a look at where these people came from and how they’re making the nomadic life work.
Many of these people who are old enough to be grandparents end up doing hard seasonal labor at Amazon warehouses. Amazon calls it Camperforce: a program that “brings together a community of enthusiastic RV’ers who help make the holidays bright for customers of Amazon.com” – from the Amazon Camperforce website. The work is both repetitive and grueling, requiring long shifts on concrete and resulting in numerous repetitive-motion injuries for about $11/hour. Retired people (or people of that age, anyway) make better employees, the thinking goes—they understand hard work, and they’ll get the job done—in part thanks to Amazon’s vending machines that dispense (free!) painkillers.
So those Prime boxes that appear on your doorstep like clockwork during the holiday rush? They were most likely packed by people who literally cannot afford rent and have no economic safety net, and are working in somewhat brutal conditions at an age they should be able to put their feet up.
Although I admire what Bruder is doing here, and the book has given me numerous insights, there are times when it feels like she is glamorizing the experience, or glossing over some of its more miserable aspects. This may be due to her focus on the relentlessly upbeat Linda May, who can take just about anything in stride (as I suppose you would have to, when your house can spring a leak at any time on the road). Still, the darker issues about the struggles facing the middle and lower classes when unemployment hits and housing becomes a luxury are things I wanted to see explored more in depth here.
And did I mention that my spring break has officially started? It’ll be mostly audiobooks for me as I’m trying to paint my living room from top to bottom.
The Queen of Hearts – Kimmery Martin (February 2018)
Okay. Let’s just get this one out there: I watched the first six or seven seasons of ER like I was eating candy (with abandon) and fulfilling a religious obligation (with intense purpose) at the same time. Although I have only a small idea what these things mean, I can bark “pulse ox” and “CBC” and “V-fib” and “stat” like it’s no one’s business. This is a language I share with my husband, also an ER fanatic from the mid- to late-90s era. No joke: he once passed a nursing practice test based on his knowledge of ER terminology alone.
The best scenes in The Queen of Hearts, in my opinion, were the ones that brought me into the heart of the trauma, with the life or death decisions in the hands of medical students and their harried instructors. Absolutely gripping. This was also a friendship drama—two female doctors with established careers coming to terms with an event from their med school pasts. I liked the past drama and the present drama… although I wasn’t sure I bought the book’s conclusion. (Zadie as a character is a much more forgiving person than Paula as a human, TBH.) I’d be curious to hear what you think!
The Partly Cloudy Patriot - Sarah Vowell (2003)
I like Sarah Vowell, and she was a natural choice for my #yearofnonfiction, having devoured her work on NPR and having loved Assassination Vacation and having a physical copy of Lafayette and the Somewhat United States on my bookshelf, courtesy of a friend who once had Sarah as a student. I know what you’re thinking: two degrees of separation from Sarah Vowell? Paula lives a charmed life.
I listened to the audiobook, which Vowell narrates, and which also contains musical introductions by They Might Be Giants, and features a variety of guest narrators (including people no one has never heard of, like Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert) in bit roles.
The Partly Cloudy Patriot is part-road trip, part-history lesson, part-social commentary, part-personal quirks of the author—I know. That’s a lot of parts. Here I should mention that I’m a bad reader of collections (essays, short stories, etc.) since one of two things inevitably happens: I end up not seeing the forest for the trees, or I realize halfway through that I can only identify with a single tree in the entire forest.
Some of the essays here seem only loosely connected thematically (“Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous” and “Wonder Twins”), but overall there’s a thread of fascination with history and the (mythology of the) Founding Fathers that’s pretty interesting. “Canada Haunts Me”—about the differences between American and Canadian viewpoints of the world—had me laughing out loud. There was a fascinating essay on the 2000 presidential debates held at Concord High School, with an explanation of an Al Gore “Love Canal” misquote that was heard around the world. And as someone whose childhood was filled with stops at brown historical markers all along I-80, I could relate to her visit to the Underground Lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns, the battle fields of Gettysburg, the Salem of witch trial fame, and, just to prove a point—North Dakota.
Gotta say… I’m liking all this non-fiction.
What are you reading?
Paula Treick DeBoard