exchanging glances

Several years ago, right after moving back to this small city, I was walking down the street when I spotted a strikingly familiar fellow walking toward me. As we got closer, I ran through the possibilities: is he another adult student from one of my classes? Did we go to high school together years ago? Is he a friend-of-a-friend? Is he a friend from my youth, all grown up? Is he a customer of mine at one of my previous jobs, or am I a customer of his?

Of course, I was running through these possible contexts so that I could greet him with the appropriate level of friendliness. Is he a passing acquaintance? Nod and smile or wave, and keep walking. If I’m a customer or client, I’d like to be friendly but still leave him some social space for privacy. But if he’s an old friend, it would be a little aloof to wave and blow on past.

I couldn’t place him, so I gave the tiniest of waves and the mildest of smiles and kept moving. He waved and smiled back.

And when I saw him a few days later, we did the same thing: raise a hand in greeting, give the half-smile, and keep walking. And this is what we did for the next dozen or so meetings: passing on the sidewalk, at the library doors, in the grocery store, wherever. We must have some similarity of schedule and taste because I bump into this guy regularly.

At some point, I noticed that he started looking at me more carefully. He couldn’t figure out where we knew each other from either!

And then I realized: I know his face but he doesn’t know mine. He’s an anchor from the local news. (I don’t have broadcast TV these days, so I haven’t seen him on TV since we started waving at each other. But I’d previously seen him on TV for years, so the face is very familiar.)

The next time I saw him — walking down the library’s long exit ramp while I was walking up the entrance ramp — I suppressed my impulse to raise my hand in greeting. C’mon, I don’t know this guy! And more to the point, he doesn’t know me!

And then he upped the ante: he waved and said “Hello!” And now, every time I see him, he gives me a hearty hello and I give it right back.

And that’s the story of how I accidentally trained a local news anchor to greet a complete stranger.


In a crowd of friends at our neighborhood bar tonight, The Fella and I met a friend’s beau.

Friend: These are two of the smartest people in town.
Elsa and The Fella in unison: Nooooooo. No no no. No.
Friend: This is Elsa. She knows a lot about bananas.
Elsa: [wincing] … that’s fair.


My new super-short haircut looks great, but on humid days it presents some morning surprises. This morning, it was standing up in vertical curls.

Elsa: ACK! My hair is — ack! — I look like I’m inventing something! I look like a mad scientist.
The Fella: I like it.
Elsa: You just want to come back to my lab and see my Tesla coils.
The Fella: I do.
Elsa: I look like Barton Fink.
The Fella: You look pretty.
Elsa: I look like a cockatoo.
The Fella: No! [approvingly] You look like Rod Stewart.
Elsa: …that’s not better than a cockatoo. Or different!

there, that wasn’t so bad, now was it?

So I went to my first of several appointments leading up to the Horrible Oral Surgery. This first visit was a long-overdue check-up with my regular, wonderful dentist and his staff… and to my astonishment, nothing much happened.

Oh, some things happened: x-rays and an exam, a referral to an oral surgeon, advice on dealing with dental anxiety before the surgery, another visit scheduled. But you know what I mean when I say “nothing much happened.” I mean that nothing happened that was painful or humiliating or even out of the ordinary.

No red light started flashing, no klaxons went AWOOOOOOGA, no oral surgery strike team arrived via helicopter to scoop me up and medevac me to the nearest maxillofacial unit. No one even gasped or clutched their pearls in horror or took away my official grown-up badge.

Indeed, both the dentist and the hygienist shrugged a little when I asked which should come first, my follow-up cleaning or my Horrible Oral Surgery. I somehow imagined the gaping pulpy painful HOLE IN MY JAW might constitute an emergency, but the dental professionals think otherwise… which is a-okay with me.

After my uneventful appointment I went home, where The Fella fed me my favorite non-crunchy take-out (asparagus tempura salad with spicy peanut dressing) and ice cream, stroked my hair, and told me I was soooooooo braaaaaaaave.

Whatever you’ve been putting off for too long, just brace yourself and do it. Do it now, do it soon. Forgive yourself for putting it off, give yourself permission to feel fear or anxiety, don’t shame yourself for it. Just do the thing. And when you do it, I’ll tell you the truth: you are sooooooo braaaaaaave.


I recently spent five minutes on the phone pretending to be a proper grown-up. It was exhausting.

I’ve been putting off minor oral surgery for, oh, a couple of years… and the delay in treatment means it’s become a major oral surgery. Yikes. Why did I put it off? Well, it’s a spicy melange of denial, constitutional inertia, poverty, dread of the dental chair (which inevitably sparks my vicious back spasms), and sheer bonechilling dental phobia.

This Mighty Girl post mentioning jaw grafts and cadaver bone didn’t help; the idea is simultaneously fascinating, inspiring (sign your donor cards, folks!), and immediately viscerally horrifying.

So I had to shut up the constant chattering voices in my head that loop around and around your tooth your back your bank account it’s urgent it’s an emergency maybe tomorrow cadaver bone! you have to do this now graft abscess impacted it’s going to hurt you can’t afford it it’s so awful in there OH MY GOD WHAT WILL THEY FIND IN THERE UNDER THE HALF-ROTTED TOOTH and make the necessary arrangements to get it yanked. Well, really what I’ve made are the necessary arrangements to make the arrangements to get it yanked, but anything’s better than nothing and movement is better than inertia.

Just subduing the panicky child inside me long enough to make that preliminary appointment — describing the problem, describing the situation I created all on my own, admitting to my own slack self-care and not getting bogged down in my crippling phobia— brought my heart into my throat and reminded me how often I feel like a child masquerading as an adult.

But then I remember: most people don’t feel like proper adults. (clean all the things?) Most people are making it up as they go along, subduing their fears and laziness and ignorance long enough to make progress, doing the best they can when they can do their best, and muddling along the rest of the time.

Everyone I know is just trying to work it out as best they can. And most of them are doing okay.

Me, too.

Years ago, I was working at friend’s home business during her most hectic season, which happened to coincide with a home repair project that temporarily changed the lay-out… and therefore changed many of her usual processes and procedures. One busy-busy day as we re-arranged the ad-hoc stores of goods while carefully balancing new stock on our hips, she exclaimed in frustration, “This is NOT how the real grown-ups do it!”

And I had a quiet little moment of peace as I realized: of course it is.

Of course the real grown-ups are doing exactly this. They’re frantically trying to balance what they know, what they think they know, what they don’t know — and most frighteningly, what they don’t even know they don’t know — all without dropping the stuff they’re balancing on their hips.

Because we are the real adults. We are the proper grown-ups. What we do is, by definition, the way real grown-ups do it. We set our own terms.

xkcd playpen balls

This idea really resonates for me. In our living room, you’ll find a matted print of this xkcd strip. I gave it to The Fella as a Valentine’s gift last year, because it sums up so much of what I think is successful in our marriage: we make our own life up as we go along, we never forget to play, and we believe in our own decisions more than in the conventional constraints of mainstream society.

puffed up

I spent part of yesterday and most of today grousing — or, more accurately, trying not to grouse, which is of course a lot more exhausting — about little things, dumb things, immaterial things that even I don’t care about. For example, this afternoon I walked into the room where The Fella was peacefully reading his book, put my hands on my hips, and opened with “Can I just point out one more problem with Lost?”

This is the level of irrational irritation I’m talking about.

And when I look back over the week, I see that I must have unconsciously anticipated this mood: as early as Friday, I planned to spend a couple of hours this weekend making pita bread… because I needed a recipe that would ever so subtly compound my bad mood, a recipe that is just a liiiiiiiiittle bit time-consuming, just a liiiiiiiiittle bit finicky, and that I have never ever managed to perform correctly. I’ve made pita bread a dozen times, and though the little flat rounds always taste fine, they never puff and separate enough to make a fully distinct pocket. In short, this is a recipe designed to make me grouchy. Grouchier.

But it’s amazing how one small success will buoy my mood. I peeked into the oven and squealed “It’s puffing! It’s puffing!” In amazement, I watched the little loaf balloon and lift itself off the baking stone… and as it floated up up up, so did my spirits.

Road House: a meditation

Whew, Road House. MST3K’s Michael J. Nelson calls it “the Fanny and Alexander of bad movies.” Roger Ebert saidRoad House is the kind of movie that leaves reality so far behind that you have to accept it on its own terms.” They are not wrong. Watching Road House is a bit like watching Last Year at Marienbad or Synecdoche, N.Y., if those movies were a little more nonsensical and, oh yes, risibly awful.

The only reasonable way to engage with Road House is to accept that it takes place in its own universe, a world that is cosmetically and physically indistinguishable from ours, but where our social and legal norms do not apply. Let’s examine the social, economic, and legal forces at play in this world, shall we?

Dalton, our hero, is a famous Zen bouncer. Patrick Swayze conveys the “Zen” part by delivering his lines with a blank, Keanu-esque lack of affect. [1. In this universe, evidently “Zen” = “vacantly stupid.” 2. In this (presumably also pre-internet 1989) universe, there are famous bouncers. How do the throngs of fans learn about the top-notch bouncers? In bouncer-specific magazines and journals? Playbounce? Bouncer Homes and Gardens? Can you pick up Bounce Fancier at the news stand?

He’s so renowned that a club owner from a smallish Missouri town pays Dalton $500 a night (plus $5000 upfront and all medical expenses) to come oversee the bouncing squad at his seedy smalltown roadhouse, “the kind of place where they sweep up the eyeballs at closing time.” [3. In this universe, a smallish town can provide enough low-life-loving heavy drinkers to support an enormous bar — so enormous that it requires a squad of half a dozen full-time bouncers, and so remunerative that the owner can pay the new head bouncer somewhere between $2500 and $3500 weekly for an indefinite period.]

Dalton moves to town and finds a fully furnished residential loft space above a nearby barn, conveniently within view of the home of his nemesis, the evil liquor distributor, mwah-hah-hah (played with growly relish by Ben Gazzara, mwah-hah-hah) who will eventually start killing people with startling sang-froid, mwah-hah-hah. [4. In the rural Missouri of this universe, residential housing is notably rare — a whole town has only two houses — yet the few available spaces are lavish and the unhoused never remark upon their homelessness. 5. Smalltown businessmen harbor personal grudges to such an extent that they routinely commit or incite others to commit murders. 6. Though this universe has police sirens, they have no actual police force.]

The whole scenario has an uncanny sense of being both familiar and deeply foreign, a potent sense of the Unheimliche. Compounding the audience’s cognitive dissonance are several images and outtakes that make little social sense in our world: an all-but-nameless love interest (Kelly Lynch, listed in the IMDb credits as “Doc”) who remains fully clad and blankly impassive during the big love scene, only to showcase her boobs and butt for the soulsearching midnight chat; a bucket-o’-blood dive bar refurbished into what looks like an Applebee’s/rollerdisco where the local bourgeoisie clamor for a table; the venerable Sam Elliot smilingly unbuttoning his trousers well past the point where most venerable actors would stop unbuttoning, for goodness sake!; “Pain don’t hurt”; a trophy room that might as well be a museum; a polar bear attacking a bad guy.

You can watch it in muted confusion or hollering hilarity; there’s little middle ground for Road House. I’m telling ya, if David Lynch had directed Road House, film students would be discussing in hushed tones its surrealist leaps, its measured ambiguity, its self-contradictory pseudo-pacifist theme, and its sojourns into magical realism. But he didn’t, so instead we watch it with hoots of derision and hilarity.