Border Crossings

Crossing borders can be uncertain. You might find a used condom under a bed in a hotel on the Ethiopia/Kenya border, or you might not almost be let into Syria because you put ‘news assistant’ on the customs form (thank you, stranger, who somehow convinced the custom officials to let me in after an hour of discussion. The official ripped up the form and instructed me to put “secretary” on it instead).

Or, it might be reaching your hands to the windshield and yelling “First to Missouri!” or “First to Washington!” in triumph as the car passes over an invisible line.

There are liminal periods and transitioning places and collaboration around borders too, such as the town Kanorado on the edge of Kansas and Colorado, or Calexico near California and Mexico.

We all know borders are arbitrary, constructed to create order over open lands and along rivers.

Our internal borders are arbitrary too, ones that we build from our past to identify ourselves and categorize our lives.

But, they are there for a reason. Perhaps it is so we can cross them.

Just Today, Just Now

My name is Kimberly Jane Bowker. I am 31-years-old. This is who I am:

Sitting on top of big-ass sand dune, on a log, my feet stuck into the sand and jean cuffs rolled up. Lake Michigan stretches before me – a lake that looks like an ocean.

I climbed the dune under clouds. Light beams through holes onto the water

A woman in a vacant parking lot below feeds bags of cheap white bread to seagulls. The grey gulls flock around her, their voices contending to be noticed.

It’s like the people who feed pigeons at Trafalgar Square.

I want to feed them too. To be in the middle of it, to be in that.

I descend the sand dune in deep strides, and ask if I can join her.

She hands me half loaves of the bread. I tear the slices into pieces and throw them. Some are thrown closer – to the patient and quiet gulls – and then high to the ones who are flying and who catch the crumbs mid-air.

The woman feeding the seagulls wears a shiny necklace, black slacks, and a nice purple shirt. Her thoughts do not come out conventionally: the policemen are damn assholes. They took her car. She wants to sell antiques. The man she married (whom she shouldn’t have married), cut her head. That’s shit.

I don’t know why she feeds the seagulls. She didn’t tell me, or maybe she did and I didn’t hear.

But I am here. Someone, just now. Here, in the middle of it. With someone else.

Three Weddings and a Beach

My boyfriend and I pulled into White Rock Beach on the southside of Maui, toting a cardboard box of Coors Light, a bag of ice, a few bright white hotel towels, and our vacation koozies.

We finally made it – to a beach – to sit and listen and be. To watch memories and unrehearse our future. To accept the ocean breaking, and the tide rolling, and the sun drifting behind clouds. Somewhere sunny and 75, drinking a beer.

Just before sunset a preacher or a priest or a pastor walked out on the beach with his Aloha shirt, followed by a groom dressed all in white. A friend rested rose petals on the sand, and a mother held up a laptop that likely Skyped with family and friends.

The bride appeared from behind a green hedge, although the groom had already seen her soft white dress as she tried to hide behind the hedge in the first place. A boom box recited some song, and they stood next to each other on the edge of the ocean, on the edge of sunset, on the edge of a day.

He placed a purple lei over her head, and she draped a green one across his shoulders. They kissed. They smiled for pictures. They walked across a damp sand leaving footprints. The gentle water reached up to her dress, wrapping it with sand and salty ocean.

The best man and bridesmaid threw a bottle with a note into the ocean. They left, just as another wedding dress appeared on the beach.

In Maui, weddings on public beaches are not uncommon. White Rock, though, is not the most popular beach for marriage ceremonies. That late afternoon, we witnessed three.

We finished our Coors Lights and swam in the ocean. We watched the weddings and tried to duck out of the pictures. We felt the island – in the shape of an infinity sign surrounded by water – reach around and under and through.

We noticed love swirling into infinity. We saw a bottle bobbing in the ocean.

Backseat Musings

I sat in the backseat, wearing pink OshKosh overalls and enjoying my own little world. My parents occasionally looked in the rearview mirror as I gazed through the frame of the windshield and the back of their heads, easily singing Baby Beluga with Raffi,* lost in my musings.

It’s a familiar view, even twenty years later, sitting in the backseat of a newer car with the same perspective, the same parents, the same connections (just no Raffi).

Road tripping with the family to Salt Lake City, a few months ago, I sat in the backseat of the car and felt safe, young, and free. On this trip I was knitting a baby blanket for my friend, The Ten Thousand Hour Mama, and her approaching baby. The blanket is a mix of extra yarns used for other projects: baby hats for other friends in Maui and Oregon; yarn purchased in Paris and Spain; extra threads from potholders my grandmother knitted for me that I now use in Kansas. It all weaves into one blanket, and one moment.

When I finish the blanket (any day now, right?), my friend’s beautiful baby may be wrapped up in it in the backseat of their car, feeling safe and young and free. She may feel connected to everyone and everything. She may even be singing to Raffi.

 

*I just learned Raffi is an Egyptian-born Canadian. That’s pretty cool.

Knuckleheads

Roger Clyne, with pointed boots and a mouth that hung seductively from a microphone, performed last week with the Peacemakers in Kansas City at the outdoor, industrial, adult Disneyland music venue that is Knuckleheads.

His voice dripped lyrics as a train visibly and intimately rumbled around the corner. At the venue, the neon sign was bright, the tin corrugated, the wood knotty, the beer cold.

I accompanied a few seasoned pros for my introduction to the band. Fortunately, the driver knew exactly where to stop on the return trip to Topeka. A WAFFLE HOUSE with three employees smoking on the curb as we pulled in at 1 am.

We sauntered up to the counter and sat on swivel stools, the only customers in the restaurant.

I ordered two waffles stacked for $4.04, with a side of bacon on top. The server magically unloaded peanut butter and chocolate chips to complement the waffles. The chips easily melted into the syrup.

I cleaned my plate (as you will unfortunately witness).

In honor of the man who bought DinnerBreakfast for us all, this is for you:

(It’s a series of waffle pictures with chosen lyrics relaying a story. The lyrics are from Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers songs performed that night)

I have no notion where I’m bound

I used to be sly

Clouds tumble over themselves in the sky

Yeah the good guys and the bad guys they never work past noon

It’s givin’ my heart a little elbow room

God bless the fools, for screwing up all the rules

You know I’d do it all again

Pretzel Necklace

Rolling up the cuffs of my jeans, I unevenly attempt to avoid the mixture of mud, straw, grass, and discarded ale on the ground as it bubbles around my sandal with every step. I smile in a haze of good beer as we saunter around the park in the sometimes purposeful, and sometimes buoyant, beer fest amble.

At the 10th annual Parkville Microfest (as the banner declares), nearly 45 breweries pour tasting glasses to 3,000 attendees at the sold-out event, and the first beer festival I have attended outside of Oregon. Admission price includes entrance into a field that lines a wide Missourian river, while brewery representatives under white tents fill tasting glasses (no tasting tickets necessary here) for four hours on the overcast Saturday afternoon. Some brewery names are familiar – Deschutes, Sierra Nevada, Stone – but others are excitingly foreign – Nebraska Brewing, Cathedral Square, Flying Monkey.

The other excitingly foreign experience manifests in the form of a pretzel necklace. Reading about this in a newspaper article, I imagined a giant soft pretzel hanging like a pendant on a chain. Instead, the necklace is a thick string strung with lots and lots of hard pretzels. Both big and small. Some even interspersed with Funyuns. Leaning on my boyfriend’s kind (and heroic) sensibilities, I quickly find one around my neck after he makes a donation to the local Rugby club.

Soon, I notice patrons sporting multiple pretzel necklaces, seemingly jingling together in layers around a neck. One man complements the look with a beer koozie necklace, and one fashionable baby even sports his own necklace of Organic Fruit Os.

Genius; the pretzel necklace is. Just when you get a hunger pang you look down and see the pretzels dangling freely below your neck. Crunching off one side, the pretzel hopefully falls from the string and into your mouth, curbing hunger and facilitating the beer fest experience to continue without foreseeable obstacles.

Something so simple, so supportive, so encouraging. Something so revolutionary.

PS – At least for me.

At an un-ticketed beer fest.

Fear of the Fear

Severe weather. Isolated tornadoes. Supercell. Funnel. These are all new phrases for me. I can deal with tsunami risks (of which I have experienced two in Hawaii) and living in the Northwest I’m ok with the possibility of volcanic eruptions (once every couple hundred years, right?) but the seemingly frequent possibility of tornado sirens has me irrationally scared as I weather my first tornado season in Kansas.

April, the cruelest month, can also be one of the most extreme months for tornadoes, according to T.S. Elliott and The Weather Channel. Today, intense risk spreads across Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Right where I am in Topeka.

My new Kansan friends rally together to assuage my fears with a few plans as I wait for the sirens to blare:

1) Get a few beers from the fridge, a tailgating chair from the closet, and sit out on the lawn until it gets really really quiet (as in all the birds have left) or until you see a Finger of God forming in some dark, low-hanging clouds. Then it’s time to go inside. (From what I gather, this is an adaptation of the truest Kansan way).

2) Grab a whiskey bottle, saunter up to the tornado, throw the bottle and give it the finger, Bill Paxton style.

3) Pry a shutter door off the closet and run into the bathtub and put the shutter door on top of the tub so things don’t fall on you. Not sure what keeps you from blowing away though.

4) Belt yourself to the bathroom sink pipes, but not the toilet.

5) Run a few blocks (or probably a few more than that with my poor sense of direction) to friends who graciously offers the use of their basement.

6) If I do end up in Oz, I have messages to deliver to the ‘little people’ and Glenda the Good Witch (who is apparently a plotter).

Realistically, I’ll probably combine a few of the safety plans – grabbing the whiskey bottle and the closet door and a belt and hiding in the bathtub with my boyfriend’s sweetly considerate 140-pound dog belted to me.

But as evening appears, the day has only yielded a partly cloudy spring sky, budding pink flowers, and no wind. So I sit outside, open the whiskey bottle anyway, and patiently allow my gaze to fall upward.

Hmmm. This is actually pretty fun.

A Lone Star – The Day After

Crossing into Texas from the Oklahoma border (‘Drive Friendly – The Texas Way’), the grass got browner, the sky got wider, the sun got brighter, and the country music got louder.

Experiencing Texas, a location on My Top Ten List, unfortunately only lasted three hours. Driving through north Texas to Oregon – while racing trains and snow – I saw the sky actually curve around the flat edges of the earth.

“You can put your boots in the oven, but it don’t make them biscuits,” a deep voice drawled over the radio station. The old Texas saying, according to the man selling work clothes, reminds us to stay true to ourselves.

Staying true to my Texas self, I only listened to country music for three hours while passing an abandoned jet ski on the freeway shoulder, a billboard promoting a FREE 72-oz. steak, the tallest and thickest church cross (ever), Stuff-It Taxidermy, black cows grazing in fields near white future-sustaining windmills, the National Quarter Horse Museum, and patiently freeing landscapes.

I wanted to stay longer in Texas. I wanted to delve into its cities and run across an open field. But with only three very fast hours, I had to somehow enjoy and accept the fleeting moments blurring outside the window.

Choosing what to focus on, as we always do, I tried to find a place of peace to simply feel each moment. Since it was the day after the End Of The World (which I was rather abnormally worried about), I was even more grateful of my time in the Lone Star state. But I was clinging onto each blade of grass passing by, each motionless cloud in the sky, each large church cross on the side of the road. It was a challenge to accept the end of each moment as a new one approached, and passed, again, and again.

But, looking back, I remember my time in Texas vividly. Each sense heightened, each moment a gift, each feeling somehow excruciatingly true. Letting go in those moments, even while knowing that they will end.

 

The Cracker Barrel-ing Experience

Kansas has been an experience of firsts: first NFL game, first time watching Space Balls, first gun show, first country fried steak (CFS), and first time at a restaurant that has the word Cracker in it.

Fascinated by the name, and the common expressions of comfort that glide over people’s faces when I reference the Cracker Barrel restaurant in conversations, I simply could not miss the opportunity for this “first” experience.

It did not disappoint.

I devoured my first CFS and all the sides: mashed potatoes, carrots, hash brown casserole, biscuits, cornbread. All concern about ordering that much food – especially when the waitress kept forcing me to make so many decisions – dissipated after dinner as I stared at my clean plate. It was worth every bite.

The southern-comfort-style restaurant chain sealed my quest of CFS exploration during my time in Kansas – wondering if there was another CFS that could equal that self-revelatory experience of the first.

The search continued at Weller’s – one of Topeka’s many sports bars. Here I began to notice the back of my elbows rubbed raw from spending so much time laughing and resting on the beer-filmed tables. Dinner appeared with broccoli covered in Velveeta, the highlight of the meal, but the steak was thicker, fattier, and slightly too unpredictable.

We returned to Cracker Barrel for breakfast – replacing the hash brown casserole with creamy grits. The CFS was good, but still did not compare to that first experience. The intruding presence of the egg added a layer of guilt since I wasn’t eating all of it, so that may have also compromised meal’s integrity.

But then, unexpectedly, something blew our hypothesis apart. We thought that humanity often searches to return and recreate the feelings associated with “first time” events: first beer, first drag, first kiss, first chicken fried steak.

At Blind Tiger, Topeka’s microbrewery, I found the CFS that was meant to complete that part of my soul that was gaping open and yearning for the perfect CFS. The homemade breading melted in my mouth, covering an honest and thick steak.

That was the CFS that was right for me. The Cracker Barrel experience, though, will always remain so dear in my heart – it was the first impression, the first taste, the first foray, the first experience. Without that first chicken fried steak, I could never have known what was possible, I could never have found the one that was meant to be.

(See Chicken Fried, Zac Brown Band)

There’s No App for That

20121015-110508.jpg

The piano player keyed a few bars of ‘Piano Man’ as I found a corner spot at the bar. The Shiloh Inn – always with a restaurant and always with a flashback to 1956 – offered a haven from the rain and traffic near the Portland International Airport.

As a transitory hub, I sat at the bar with other single travelers. Our eyes cast downward as we checked email, and Facebook, and email again. I momentarily laid my phone face down on the bar to glance at the Navy football team on TV, but soon picked up the phone again. Just to see if I had received another email in the past 30 seconds.

Then I noticed the bar tender fumble somebody’s bill and I made some funny comment about Tom Cruise and Cocktail to break the tension. The woman next to me replied to the comment, and we started talking.

I soon found myself sharing admissions to her good humor, such as expressing my once indecision about having children (side note: a friend – who held a similar viewpoint – and I once partook in an “ambivalent baby” party in her front lawn, which was pretty awesome). The woman at the bar confided to me that she had felt the same way, but once she had a child it was like “putting on an old sweater. I knew that I was meant to do it.” As she said that, it suddenly became clear that when our destinies (or the things that are meant to be) are realized, you know because they wrap you up in warmth and love and comfort and relief and safety, just like the fit of an old sweater.

Then on the other side of my corner seat, a man pulled out a bar stool and ordered a Crown. He quickly fell into conversation with us and I soon felt the tension building between the man and woman next to me, both about a decade older than myself, and I happily played a lubricating role in the flirtation.

“What do you do?” she eventually asked him.

“I’m in nuclear engineering,” he replied. “What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m in wind energy.”

“HA!!” I emitted with a clear lack of control. “What do you guys call each other behind your backs?”

“We call them propeller-heads,” he said with good nature.

“Well, he is part of ‘the other green energy'” she shot back with a smile.

Another howl of laughter erupted from me, enough to garner the attention of the rest of the bar.

Soon we conscripted the other patrons into conversation. The white-haired man drinking vodka tonics, with one hand gesturing and the other hand dancing, taught me some Italian to use in Firenze: “Be-a-cherry” (or nice to meet you).

My initial bar friend and I agreed to never sleep with any firefighters (although wild land ones are ok) since learning that one of the patron’s recently estranged wife had posted on her fb page (that night in fact) that she was now dating a firefighter. We deleted it off our mental Bucket Lists, and it was definitely worth the sacrifice.

The young Navy man down the bar also had us promise not to sleep with any battleship men (although I’m not really sure what that even means) but we gamefully agreed.

In that bar, we organically formed a transitory community while listening to the piano man play into a previous generation. Instead of sitting on the stools with eyes tuned to a moving screen to escape our silences, close ourselves to humanity, hoard our energy we think we need to conserve, and combat our fear of the present, we put our phones down and opened. And bonded. And laughed. And shared energy that actually made ourselves feel worthy with generosity.

And we fell a little bit back into 1956.