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Comedown Town

Ok, well, this is harder than anticipated.

But I mean…   DUH, Sherry.    Obviously. 

I can’t stop thinking about the second time I went to Europe, and then came back and moved to Vancouver.   One minute it was like, Hostel Job in Lisbon!  Day Trips to Sintra!  Love Affair in Paris!  Drunken Reunions in London! Jewelry Street Fair in Manhattan!  …and then suddenly it was all Vancouver Rain, Bad Room-Mates, and Day after Day after Day.

Thing is, some things are simply too good to last.

This doesn’t make what comes after them bad.   It just… well.  It’s a Frame of Reference thing.

But honestly, things… could be cooler.

Like, Hi North Island, You Are The Greyest Thing In All History, thanks.    Spring hasn’t even thought about arriving here yet, and every day this week the sea has remained the relative color and hardness of graphite.    Even the white-caps are grey.    And you know why the wind sounds so menacing in winter?   It’s because the hissing of pine needles and the rattle of bare branches is viscerally different from the soft green ruffle of actual leaves.    It fills me with hunger of a kind that food doesn’t fix.

Anyways, it’s a rough goddamn comedown, is what I’m saying.    Dawson isn’t soon enough – Dawson Springtime, Always An Adventure.   It’ll fuckin’ do nicely once I get to it.  There are things waiting for me there.   Kindred, age-long friendships and work, a reason to roll up my sleeves again, a glittering river to sit by, some mouthy broads to sit with.

But things are different here in Campbell River than they used to be.   Long gone are the house party days, the 90’s rock and “safety meetings” out back.   Sure.   That’s fair.  We can’t all stay idiot hipsters forever (…ooops…)  But gone now too are the early-parenthood days when things are new, toddlers sleep deeply and often, and everybody’s lifestyle is still kinda the same.

Parenthood is a noble calling, to be sure.   But I guess it’s hard not to miss the days when my cousins’ freedom…  more closely matched my own.

See?  Frame of Reference.   Sometimes, I kinda think mine is bullshit.

What do I expect from life, anyhow?    Endless adventure, unmitigated joy, flawless blue skies over a clear, rippling stream?

…sometimes, yeah.

I dug through old boxes yesterday, for pants and also distractions.    It was good.  (One of the distractions:  a strange sensation at the edge of perception as I rifle through the clothes.  I freeze.  I check.   Yes, I just put my hand on a giant dead wolf spider.   I left it there. Put the lid back on the box.  Future Sherry will have to manage that one, sorry bud.)   I made a banana cream pie from scratch, which was fun, even though I didn’t eat any of it.  There are… three deer in the yard I can see, and one of them is curled up in the grass like a very large loaf of brown bread.   There’s an eagle all majestic and silhouetted on a tree nearby.    It’s technically all pretty great here.

But I feel like time has suddenly ground to an excruciating halt, and I wish to fuck it would just kick back into gear already.   Or at least that it might stop fucking raining.  Or that I could stop comparing the color pallete of today with that of last week and coming up starkly, hungrily wanting.

If I could fix my frame of reference.   Tweak it back to somewhere in January, when the dark-crazies whirled like bats around my head and the winter chill was so deep in my bones it felt like it would never go.    Stop measuring this against 25-degree kayak days and spring-water the color of polished aquamarine

Hangovers end, is the good thing.    And three weeks isn’t exactly interminable lengths of time.   And at the end of the three, I get to Have The Things again;  glittering river, amphetamine spring, the possibility of Camping With Friends.

And really…   I mean…  when I step back and push through the grey it seems as clear and obvious as can be, and uncouth to deny:

Just how lucky it is, and how wrenchingly lovely, to have something – even temporarily – that sucks so much to leave behind.

 

O God of Nostalgia, I Invoke Thee.  Do Your Sweet Thang, Dude.

…Or, y’know, El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Hard and Soft

Vancouver, 2017

So, this thing happens to your feet when you spend six months in supple moose-hide soled mukluks walking on nothing but squishy powder snow.    For one, I feel like the muscles are better – flexible and engaged more often, like barefoot sand feet.  (I bet I could toe-pinch extra hard right now.)    But impact readiness?  OH GOD.      My feet are like stupid babies and they do not understand.     It’s the centre of my heel that’s the problem.   It feels like it’s never been walked on before, and now contains the deep, tingling tenderness that precedes blisters of real consequence.

And I only walked ten or twelve blocks.      I’m so screwed.

I don’t understand hard ground anymore.   Or soft air.   The air here is so fucking soft.  It’s full of salt and moss – and memories, because my hotel is just blocks away from the house I grew up in.   And as much as this neighborhood has changed since the 80’s-thru-Oughts when I lived here, it still feels like home.   It’s the basic geography of the West End, I think.    The particular titchy little peninsula we’re on, the jade-green sea on 3.5 sides, the way the streets slope.    It triggers in me this instinct of “Rest now, home base is achieved”  that isn’t connected to actually having a place to stay.

That being said – 3 nights in an 18th floor balcony king room?   Yeah, this is NOT the worst.  January travel (plus a little Hotel Staff Solidarity from the front desk girl) pays off in spades – except there’s no bath tub?      I mean, there’s this glorious rain shower and did I mention I can see Lost Lagoon from my balcony?   So Ok, I’m not complaining.     But my pansy-assed winter muscles could sure use a soak after yesterday.     I wonder if this place has a Jacuzzi.

The sheer scope of possibility now at my fingertips makes me feel like goddamn wizard.       It’s like arriving in Oz.    From duo-chrome emptiness and bitter, sterile weather to this insane explosion of colors and sound and light.      It can send your nervous system into overdrive, poison you with input.   Sometimes you leave the Yukon and you’re like “Aauuuggghhh what have I done” and the crowds and the lights and the traffic make you want to scream and run and hide.

…And then sometimes, it’s like this.

oz.jpg

(basically me rn)

I don’t expect a lot of argument about the the following assertion:

Trains>Airplanes.

Like, x 10000.     For one thing, I have ACRES of leg room.   And it’s silent here, or near enough, and the air I’m breathing is real air and not a dry, excessively recycled facsimile of air.      And instead of jolting, secretly terrified, over thunderheads –  instead of views akin to satellite imagery of the faraway earth – instead we glide and curl along lakesides.    Up the Hudson River Valley, through grey-brown winter marshlands and forest still carpeted with last year’s dead leaves.    The empty summer houses with vast, screened-in porches tell me there are mosquitoes here aplenty, and probably black-flies too, but also nights with air warm as hands on your skin.

There are rickety home-built docks floating in green water, and dilapidated grain silos and tumble-down barns.   It looks like the America that Tom Waits has been singing about for a half century.    Something vast and old, studded with summer stars and free, unschooled young people racing pell-mell through fields.  “we, primeval forest felling, We the rivers stemming, vexing we, and piercing deep the mines within;  we the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving, Pioneers!  O Pioneers!”     Something that existed – as sure and solid as these bridges of stone and iron – but maybe only for a moment, and maybe only for a few.   I wonder what the job market is like out here.   There are only so many abandoned farms turned summer houses turned abandoned summer houses you can pass before you start coming to some conclusions.  The nicest ones have winter caretakers, you can tell by the dark windows and freshly mown lawns.  The owners probably live in New York and Boston and DC, they don’t live out here at all.

The shorelines of this place are steeped in history, thick with relics, awash with a sense of What Once Was.    A sharp veering turn away from my arrival here – a long drive in through New Jersey, past huge prisons and filthy warehouses,  where the trees by the roadside have garbage in place of leaves.

Mum and I were so deeply stuck in traffic for so long that I had to crawl into the backseat and pee in a paper cup – which we then tossed out the window in front of probably a hundred cars.   THAT was a first.    Also apparently I sometimes contain 14 oz of pee.  Which seems HUGE.

Coming from fifteen straight months in the Yukon, it’s all enough to make a girl’s head fall right off.

When I got to Vancouver my sense of smell went absolutely mental.   Yukon Winter Air is essentially sterile – it’s snow and ice and woodsmoke, and not a whole lot else.   Suddenly my nose was bombarding me with information – three dimensional floods of it, a job you’re used to your eyes doing.    I could smell everything all at once.   Cars going by, the recent rain,  damp moss warming in the sun, a nearby bakery, spicy noodles, a restaurant making sausages, a passing dog.   Seriously.  I could smell the wooden paneling on houses and the long-term dampness of heritage homes and the sea, always the sea.   Briney and stinging and vast.

Just a pop-in, there, really.   Enough time for a few tightly-scheduled lunches and dinners and one glorious nap on the beach.    I miss English Bay, but I miss it in that everlasting but gone way.    I was a kid there, a scampering mouse thing, then a teenager, bold and uncompromising.   You had to be, back then, if you wanted to make it down the street at night without incident.   I remember coaching my kindly suburban friends on why no, they shouldn’t stop and engage the drunken men who approached us on silent, empty streets in the middle of the goddamn night.    Not even if they started out by slurring that we were pretty or asking us a question that seemed hard, in politeness, to ignore.

But I’m from the Yukon now, and I look strangers in the eye, I search their faces for familiarity.   I’ve forgotten how to deal with men staring obviously down my shirt as they pass, because in Dawson they know you and it just doesn’t happen that way.    Things go wrong in Dawson, just like they do everywhere.   But it’s different.

Vancouver makes the memories surge, and the nostalgia, but it’s been so long that it’s as likely to be a memory of early childhood in the West End or early adolescence in Richmond as it is to be my early twenties.    I miss things and places that simply don’t exist anymore.

And so, we slide northwards.    A rain cloud just passed, the roads are dark and slick now, the distant valleys full of mist and grey.      A couple just walked by with beers from the concession car, and I find myself tempted.    It’s 3 now, or thereabouts, I’ll arrive in a mere 4 more hours.     With these kinds of views and this much leg room, that almost feels too soon.     And then, Montreal, a city I’ve never been to.    I’m widely assured that I’m going to love it.    I’m so thrilled.    I am going to eat and drink absolutely every goddamn thing I can.   We are going to have to roll home on our sides like barrels, leaking wine.

 

Because Kate’s is great and all,

but, well….

y’know?

The Darkest Timeline

I mean, it’s great, don’t get me wrong.    This winter is cartoon-style lovely and enjoyable, I’m basically living in a gingerbread house surrounded by sugar, I’m FINE.   

snow 2

But there is an ache behind my sternum where the sun used to be.

It’s a hollowness, a weird internal vacuum that places barely perceptible but constant pressure on your lungs and heart.    When I think about The Sun my breath catches and sort of grinds to a halt, pressure builds up, and I end up grimacing.     Or else this vast sinkhole of loneliness opens up and I want to cry.

It’s so fucking weird.  

This is my fourth or fifth winter up here, but it’s the first time I’ve spent the whole of the darkest months without ever Getting Out.    Honestly, I was pretty stoked to see it – I’ve seen the edges of it, I’ve seen the sun go and I’ve seen it come back, but I’ve never stayed while it was just Gone.   What was it going to be like?  How dark was it going to get?

And OK, so it’s not dark all the time, it’s just not.   Every day, even the darkest days, there’s a chunk of time that’s fully daylight.   Not sun-high-in-the-sky daylight, but daylight.  Bright blue sky, sure.   But we’re talking two, three hours.   Maybe four.    It’s pitchy dark until 11am, and back that way by 5.   And on either side of the few hours of day are these long, slow, deep blue slides from one into the other.    It’s eerie, and calming, and sweet, and slow, and I love it.

The problem is it’s been a million years since the sun has been on my skin, or in my eyes.    I remember the summer like it was a fever dream, malarial and pulsing.    I wonder what will happen when I see the sun again, if it’s going to be like what they warn you about after a blackout, how you should unplug your stuff so that when the power surges back it doesn’t fry all your circuits and blow all your fuses.   I dunno, maybe that was fifty years ago tech and I’m a person not a house – but I’m worried all the same.

Last year, when I left in mid-December, it was 16 degrees and sunny in Vancouver and when I got out of the airport I took my coat off and sat in the sun and I laughed for like fifteen minutes straight.     Not even exaggerating:  by myself on a curb outside the baggage claim, laughing.  Nonstop.   For fifteen minutes.    I must have looked like a lunatic.   God, I felt like a lunatic.

I think most people in Canada understand this, to one degree or another.  All you have to be is “Employed At Coffee Shop During February/March”  to know the cock-eyed joy that geysers up through a city on the first sunny, promise-of-spring day.    People are all high as kites, and grinning, and loopy, and those days are the best.    There’s something fundamental and biological happening there, and we all feel it.

Well, try this.

I mean it, it’s great, I honestly think you should – I think (and I’m most assuredly biased), that everyone should spend one crazy no-darkness summer and one cozy snow-cupcake winter up here.     Like I say, I live in a gingerbread house, and the other night (hey, new years, whaddya know) I was at an even MORE gingerbread-y and magical winter cabin, this one buried in snowforest.     Take a vast and terrifying snowscape of emptiness and pines, and put a little ice-cream scoop of wooden village on a hillside.   Every house tucked deep in the trees, every woodstove ablaze.

See?

It’s really, really great here.

snow 1

It’s just, I miss the fucking sun.

This Fire, and The Last

IMG_1603

It starts like any other minute.    First there is nothing.

And then there is fire.

I was just falling asleep, when suddenly my room-mate Leslie’s voice called me from outside my window.  Her voice was different – tense – angry?   I had time to worry I’d done something wrong.   But she didn’t say “could you turn that movie down”, she said “We need to call the Fire Department.   Can you see that?”

So I looked out my bedroom window, and saw.

Blazing orange, billows of smoke.   Pouring off something one building away from mine.     I couldn’t tell what yet.  Only that it was Too Close – Far, Far Too Close.    I ran outside barefoot, to make sure it was safe to run back into my house and dial the number.  The street was empty, the town was utterly silent.  The northern lights blew in pale strands across the sky.    And there in the field, the Minto Park concession building was very much on fire.

Now in Dawson, the number isn’t 911.   I know this, but do I know what number IS?  Well, I do now.   Flooded with miserable adrenaline, shaking like a leaf, I called.   I wasn’t the first, but there can’t have been many before. The fire was still new, the street still deserted, the sirens still ten minutes away.   I grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran back outside.

Not to charge towards the doomed structure.   I’m not crazy, after all.    But I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to stand there without a weapon.   I don’t care how futile those shining red cylinders might seem when confronted by thirty foot flames.   I don’t care.  Idon’tcareIdon’tcareIdon’tcare.   Because I know how this goes.

Southwest Alaska, August 6, 2005. 

Before

Before 

This is my second wilderness lodge job, and my first time in the far north.  It’s a luxury fishing lodge deep in the bush, float plane access only, the nearest town is a half hour flight away and houses under a hundred souls.   The Alaska Peninsula, which segues into the Aleutian Islands – our lodge is nestled several hundred kilometers from inland from the crook of that finger.   It’s a stunning landscape, and the fishing is world-class. 

This is also, as luck would have it, the worst summer of my life.   And it’s about to be the second worst day.  

Sandy and I are napping between shifts in our tiny plywood cabin.    We are woken suddenly when Jason Atkins, the chef, knocks on our door.   To ask us a silly question.   And afterwards, we can’t get back to sleep because it’s so stuffy in there, so hot and so airless.   Strange, for such a cool, overcast day.  Resigned, unworried,  I trot down the winding forest trail to the main lodge building.   Microwave a bowl of chili and inhale it at speed.   At the very most, seven minutes passed since Sandy and I had left the cabin.   I look out the window, and see… smoke.    And…  it’s close to the place where we burn our garbage….     but it’s not….quite…. close… enough.     So I trot back.   Just to check. 

I hear the fire before I see it.  The last corner I take at a run, rounding a cluster of trees to see my cabin – my cabin – my house – flames, thirty feet high, pouring out of the front door and off the roof.    And Chad, the hotel manager, is standing there with a single red fire extinguisher pointed desperately at the towering flames.  

“GET HELP!” he yells, and I turn and I run.  

The lodge was always mostly empty during the day.  Our guests, the guides, the pilots – all fly out to pristine rivers and unpeopled lakesides each morning.  They return for dinner.   Remaining on the property:  Me.  Sandy.  Chad.  Jason.  Nicole.  And Nicole and Chad’s fifteen month old daughter.   

So I burst back into the main building.  And in that moment, my racing brain has time to register the bizarre nature of what I have to do:   I have to yell FIRE.    Me.  I’m the one.  It’s not happening in a movie, or in a dream.  It’s me.  Yelling Fire.  Because my house is burning down.  

Jason drops his knife and tears off through the trees.  Nicole shoves her baby into Sandy’s arms (Sandy was a mother of three already, far better at babysitting than I) and tears off after him, and I follow her.   And this is where my memory glitches out.  The whole rest of the day I could carve for you out of a solid block of glass, it’s so fucking clear.   All I remember is knowing that there were more fire extinguishers.  No hose.  But more shining red cylinders.  I know there’s one in every cabin, I know because I clean them.    But I have no memory after “they are in the cabins I’ll get them” . Suddenly, I just had them – six, eight maybe – hauled in a single armload back to the fire.  I drop them in a clattering pile near Chad and Jason, who are very clearly not wining the fight.    I turn on my heel and race back to the lodge, and begin hauling buckets of water. 

But the water lines under my house have melted.  So the water pressure in the kitchen is for shit.   I stick a slop bucket under every tap I can find.    Race the buckets up the hill, race back down for more.    I stop for a moment to vomit the utterly undigested chili into the bushes beside the trail.   And then keep running. 

The risks here are utterly clear: We are alone in the forest, and the forest can burn.  Everything.  Everyone.  If this fire spreads our only hope is the kilometer-long  lake, and the island in the middle of it.   This could be very, very bad.  

There are massive propane tanks strapped to the back of every cabin.   Jason charges in, taking a face-full of insulation smoke, and wrests the five-foot-tall tank from the back wall.    There’s a pile of them now, huge, explosive, silver bombs just feet from the flames.   I grab one and start hauling it down the hillside.   And another. And another.   Nicole is trying to help, but mostly she’s just flapping her hands, in mortal terror for her husband, whom she is much younger than and utterly dependent upon for guidance, stability, and decision-making.    So she panics, and drops a propane tank on me from ten feet up the hill.   I yell at her for the first time.     

Someone has radioed for help, and so there are planes now – circling, landing.   But they aren’t firemen, they’re civilians.  Just people who were nearby and flying.   Young boys and confused fathers.  And they stand around, uselessly, staring at the flames.  My stomach knots as I fly past them, and when a boy takes one of my hard-won buckets of water and flings it at a part of the cabin that isn’t even burning, I want to hit him in the head with a rock.   Finally the fire plane lands, and the hose is getting set up, but the random dude trying to help is holding two female ends, ends that don’t connect. One side drops down a steep bluff to the pump plane that bobs on the lakeshore and the other side contains the nozzle.   He bumps the two pieces dumbly against each other, and looks around slowly for advice, or help.   My brain explodes  and I leap down the bluff, following the hose to the firemen below who know what to do.  There’s enough hose, they say, pull it up.  Get it higher.  Just use the one.  So I throw the heavy canvas over my shoulder and start hauling it back up the bluff, using the trees that grow sideways out of the dirt like handlebars.   Once I get to the top, the boys have started moving quicker.  One grabs the newly delivered hose lengths and starts running.  But the hose runs in a loop that’s closing – fast – and I’m in the middle.  That thick, that heavy, and moving that fast – it could break my ankles, wrap around my knees, would certainly knock me on my ass.   I have just enough time to drop like a stone and the hose rushes over my head, held just off the ground by the layer of bramble and scrub.   When it passes, a hand reaches down and I am hauled to my feet.  The guy asks me if I’m OK with wide, serious eyes.    

By this time the cabin next door is also engulfed.  A chopper has arrived, and it’s dipping a huge metal bucket into our lake – our lake – our pristine, silent lake which no people but us ever visit.   It empties it’s contents onto what used to be everything I own.   All that’s left are twisted steel bed-springs and the melted tin roof.  

Afterwards:   We still have to put on dinner.   The chef and manager have been flown to the hospital for smoke inhalation.  Sandy and I boil chicken and carrots and I serve these thousand-dollar-a-night guests with twigs in my hair, soot in my fingernails and somebody else’s sweatpants on.   Sandy stays the night with one of the guides.   Everything is gone.    Everything I own.  My journal, my underpants, my toothbrush, my pens.  I have a sheaf of paper and a folder, the clothes on my back. And nothing else.    I stay in Jason’s room that night.  It’s when I remember that Chocolate, my childhood favorite Gund bear was in there, and most definitely burned, that I finally burst into tears.   I cry myself to sleep in Jason’s bed, clutching a pillow to my chest.     

Dawson City, 2015

So when it happens, when I see the flames,   I don’t care that my fire extinguisher probably won’t help.   I just remember two years of picturing what my belongings looked like on fire.  

So I’ll be damned if I stand there with nothing in my hands.

Because it can change so fast.   Because it always changes so fast.   Look at the words we use to describe fire.  Fingers, tongues, eating, devouring.  It’s alive, it has agency, and motives, and hunger.

The police arrived first, banged on all the doors and woke everyone else up.   We had to know.  We had to be awake.  It was too close to let your room-mates sleep, even the ones who work at 4 in the morning.    The thick gravel road between us and the fire meant we weren’t – probably – in immediate danger.   But there are telephone poles, and electrical wires, and the wires were already burning.  White sparks were showering off the north corner of the structure.   And fire, well, it’s contagious.    All it takes is a caterpillar of flame, creeping towards a breaker.  A change in the wind.  A propane tank.    And a fire like this, the heat that comes off it – paint blisters at thirty paces, the boards begin to smoke, and – whoosh – without a single kiss of orange the house next door begins to burn.

We are so lucky that building stands alone.    Half of this dry, clapboard town could fall to a single careless cigarette, if we were unlucky, and the wind was high.

The losses, of course, are still stark.   The DCMF tent, it sounds like, and the baseball equipment, and who knows how much liquor. Most assuredly more than this.    But no lives.  Nobody’s home.   It’s luck.  And the volunteers who were hauled out of bed to throw gear over their heads and race towards the flames.

So Leslie and I, we stood and watched from our driveway, until the last of the liquid hot orange stopped dripping from the eaves, until the sounds turned from roaring and crackling to the hiss and billow of steam to the mere blasting of water against rickety, burned-out walls.   They got it under control so fast.  Considering how big it was, and how hungry.

Stark naked under my bathrobe and parka, my red boots on bare feet, I kept the extinguisher clutched to my chest until the last of the glow died away.    Because I couldn’t let it go, couldn’t go in.    Couldn’t feel safe.   Until it was over.   For really, really over.

Because I know how fast a minute changes.   And what it means when things are Gone.

After

After                                                                         (2005) 

The Thaw

It’s melting

It’s all melting

To those of you not consigning your lives to the northland,  “Melting” is probably an unremarkable sentiment.   Nothing much, really, not for a mossy Vancouverite or skittery Torontonian.  You will have seen rain.  

But up here, our lives are changing.

It wasn’t even that cold a winter – shockingly warm in fact, given the usual standard here.   Whole long months at -15 instead of -35.  The poles are warming much faster than the rest of the world, after all. (Yes it could be a fluke but also yes it is genuinely unnerving.)   And Yet, the fact of the matter is that at no point between October and the first smidge of March is “liquid water out-of-doors” a possibility.    Or “ground”.   There hasn’t been “ground” in AAAGES.   Just snow.    Snowfeet, snowboots, snowcrunching, snowpaths.   Snow on the trees and on the roofs and handrails and cars, always-always-always, fluffy, gorgeous and totally unrelenting.

February was stunning.   I was fresh then still, I’d gotten out, I’d seen Ground.   So coming back to the silent snow-globe town at -40 was actually magnificent.  Even though I came back to a dark and crazy-eyed place full of lunatics with bitter tongues.    I thought it was great.    Like an iced-cake daydream.     Ice fog, a stark blue sky and the low, gold sunlight slanting sidelong through the town.

The sun is always low here, and the shadows are always long.

and then -Wham- March.  Less like a lion than a lamb up here. But like, a very very fast lamb.   The sun comes back in a matter of weeks.  We went from Darker Than All Of You, Everyone Stay In Bed ‘Till Lunch Time Town…  at the beginning of March… to – well – it’s light here ’till 10 now.  Already.   I can see the summer comin’ quick in the periwinkle edge of an 11 pm sky.

And then the dripping starts.   A sound you’d started to dream of with a full-body hunger, a concept so far gone as to blow your actual mind the first time you hear it again.     First all the snow falls off the trees, so the hills are black-and-white-and-mud now, instead of uniformly frosted over.   (For the record – frosted over is WAY prettier.)      Then patches of gravel open up on Front Street and Fifth.    They scrape six inches of packed ice and snow off the streets and suddenly there’s gravel in all kinds of places.      Roofs start unloading terrifying piles of snow and ice all at once, in these great scraping avalanches.   The Downtown has to close off that whole section of boardwalk so that nobody is actually killed.

The mud is coming.  There are melty yellow ice-slicks crawling down from the mountains, turning the town into a treacherous obstacle course.   We’re still four inches in snow here, three or two in places, grass is peeking through.   It’s going to be Lake Season soon – already you have to stop taking shortcut paths through empty lots or risk your foot punching through a snow-crust into two feet of ice water.  My favorite is the few places in town that usually flood out enough that the boardwalk floats and you can walk across it like a long smooshy dock.     One of my favorite local art projects ever was a map of the town’s puddles at this time of year.   Everyone got really enthusiastic discussing their favorites.

It takes an enormous amount of time to rid the town of all it’s snow.  Like, months.   It won’t be gone ’till early May.

And Yet:

We are suddenly living T-shirt weather afternoons.    Beer and porch days and gloveless, coatless walks.

COATLESS WALKS.

Omg.  I cannot express to you what a thing that is.    Considering how recently the whole concept of “going outside” came hand in hand with fifteen actual pounds of protective layering.    One time this season I want to take one of my summer friends and dress them up in all the things I wore to go to the grocery store at -40.

So like, it’s hard not to be a side-eyeing asshole when the Summer Kids show up.   With their city hair-tossing and tiny, fashionable shoes.    We’ve all become bitter ‘Nam Vets of Wintertime.

“You weren’t there, man.”  

And it’s unavoidable, because it’s true, and winters here are L.O.N.G. and fuck you and your recently-consumed pho.

But that’s not the whole picture.  Huge parts of the picture include “I was a summer person too” and “where else do we get the new winter people anyway?”  and “there are not enough possible sex partners in this town right now”.

So bring your short shorts, girls, and your springtime saunter.   Trim your beards gents, brush up your chesty plaids.   The winter leaves us with wolves behind our eyes, and you are plump from city feasting.

*ahem

Greetings and salutations.    You may perhaps wonder what my credentials are in this respect, and it’s mostly this:  I’ve probably lived with more people than you.

Not that this is about one-upsmanship, no no.   God, let’s not get started there.   I’m just saying – I bet I have.  Because I have lived with non-parental, non-related-to-me roommates every single day of my life save for three rose-colored months in Europe just one year ago.  I’d shared living space with more than a dozen strangers by the age of thirteen.    I just did a quick count and excluding all boyfriends as well as people who share my genetic material (parents, aunts, uncles, cousins) I got to forty-seven.

forty-seven.      

Forty-seven different people with whom I have shared bathrooms, kitchens, TV sets and dinning tables.    So you see, I’m something of an old hand at this.   I’m trained up, from the ground up.

I am the Roommate’s Roommate.

And far from perfect, don’t get me wrong.  I will presently share with you the ways I am terrible.   I used to be a lot worse – but hell, we were all 22 once, y’know?  And ok, maybe ALL my rules aren’t your favorite, maybe some of this you will think goes too far.   Maybe you and your bro are waaaay more relaxed about this shit and he totally doesn’t mind that you leave all the best pots full of crusty macaroni in your bedroom, maybe you and your bestie share all your food and clothes and it’s fine.   But those are exceptions based on personal relationships and life circumstance, and will not be accounted for here.  Good luck moving out and keeping that shit going somewhere else, is basically what I’m saying.

So with that out of the way,  I will begin.    I will keep it streamlined and specific – with these simple boundary markers, you too can become an unobtrusive and affable presence in any home.    With this primer you can precisely address any number of common conflicts – and it all comes down to four simple points.

*obvious things like “do your dishes” and “flush your massive shits pls”  are to be taken as read, because we’re all grownups here, mmmkay?  

1.) Conversations;  When To Have them, When to Join them, When To Go Away.  

Begin with this principle:  Your Roommate Owes You Nothing Past Courtesy.    If you start from there – and happily, mind you, not resentfully – you’re getting off to a great start.   The fact that you and this person share a kitchen and a living room, and both of you happen to be in the space at the same time does not require that anyone engage in conversation.   If you’re just trying to make a cup of coffee, does that automatically mean you have to stay and fake interest when I start telling you about my dream from last night?    No, no it does not.   You sir, are free to go.  And just because you feel like ranting about politics or gender or how this blog post didn’t get intersectionality does not mean that the innocent bystander slurping down ramen in front of a rerun of SVU needs to listen.     Start with this premise but be nice about it – don’t be bitter when somebody doesn’t have time for you and don’t be a dick when you have to start walking out the door while someone is still telling you a story you didn’t ask to hear.  Just be coolsville, and you’re golden.

If your roomies have friends over this can also be tricky.  Am I invited or am I not?   How can I tell?

Be observant and flexible.   If they tell you to sit and have a glass of wine, you are invited – for at least that glass.  If they keep refilling it, you’re obviously still welcome.   If you drain the first one and there are no further entreaties to stay, keep an eye out.  Are they trying to have personal conversations?  Are they talking about things of which you are not involved/interested?    Are they your friends too?      If the answers to these questions are Yes, Yes and No, then you might want to peace out, just to be cool.     If the answers are No, No and Yes, you can probably stay.  PROBABLY.   But leave room for your roommates to have private space in public, because don’t you want that sometimes for yourself?

If they are a couple having a dinner date you MUST wait for an invitation (and don’t expect one).    If they are a pair of best friends nose-to-nose talking at light speed about Serious Life Stuff you should probably skedaddle, but really only for your own sake, because jesus.  We all know what THAT’S like.

But if it’s a loose grouping of part room-mates, part friends, everyone is casual and the circle is open?   Dive in buddy, and crack another beer.

2.)  Foodstuffs

This probably falls under the “too obvious to bother” category, but it’s SO FUCKING IMPORTANT.    The bottom line is, don’t fuck with other people’s shit.   Just don’t.   We are poor – we have roommates, for fuck’s sakes – so don’t touch my rations.   I am counting on that half-empty yoghurt container of ground beef for my dinner tonight THANK YOU VERY MUCH so keep your greasy mitts OFF.   I will cut your fucking hand off at the wrist.   Don’t even get me started on the boyfriend who ate all the cheesecake out of my Raspberry Cheesequake Blizzard, that was ten years ago and I’m still mad. 

The exceptions to this rule are as follows and ONLY AS FOLLOWS.

-if you replace the thing before the person notices it’s gone, it’s fine.   And not “I meant to replace it before you noticed” – this does not in any way cut it.  You have to succeed in replacing it before they notice.   Intention isn’t worth a hill of beans if I go downstairs at midnight and my macaroni is gone.

-Once you have established a mutual, agreed-upon back and forth about Little Splashes of Milk, this is ok.  But only if it goes both ways, or is totally rare.  You cannot use little splashes of my milk every day and never have your own milk.    This is a stopgap measure only.   You need to have your own butter.   

3.) Noise and Company 

There are a LOT of different ways this one pans out, and it depends wholly on the set of individuals in a given house.   This one is the most mutable of all the elements on this list.   Because some houses are loud houses, and that’s ok with everyone, and sometimes they aren’t.    What time everybody works in the morning and how often the noise is produced are crucial variables in this equation.      If, for example, it’s Friday night, you don’t work in the morning and your roomies are having a small impromptu party you don’t get to complain until at least 3am.     By 4 you get to ask them to bring it down a few notches if it’s still bothering you.     If the event is rare, (1 night per week or less) or special, (birthday, end of finals, someone got promoted)  and not killing anybody’s work day, you have to suck it up.

If everybody works shift work and there aren’t any days where the whole house is in the clear for AM wakeups, try and give some advance notice.  That way contingencies can go into effect – naps, sleepovers at boyfriend’s houses, noise-canceling headphones and a gravol or two.   But if you bring the bar home at 2am with no warning and blast Creedence so loud it’s making the spoon in my bedside teacup rattle against the side?      Nahh son.  Not cool.     (*caveat for rarity:  Once Shandi came home with the whole staff of Earls to our tiny appartment at 3 am and I had to work at 8.  But she had NEVER DONE IT BEFORE in three plus years of living together and her antisocial boyfriend was actually partying with her friends for once and it was a very unique moment.   So I stewed in bed for twenty minutes and then just got up, insisted someone provide me with compensatory beer, and I joined on in.    Fine, right?    But, do this every week for a month and I’m going to come out in full crazy cat lady bathrobe mode and scream the house down. sorrydudes.)

Dinner parties, sports-watching and video game nights fall similarly.    The crucial markers are: How Often, How Loud, How Crowded.    Are you – by dint of sheer numbers, noise volume or cooking intensity – pushing the room-mates out of shared space, and if so, for how long?    Once a week is generally acceptable for all of the above.   You and your boys are going to yell about hockey for several hours on a Thursday evening – fine.   The crew gets together for a dinner party that monopolizes the kitchen for hours and turns out a thousand hand-made perogis and a half-ton of dishes, covers every surface in flour and egg?   Again, once a week or less and this is fine, fine fine.

BUT

There was a period of time, for example, where that shared Tiny Apartment became an intolerable hell-hole.   For one simple reason:   Boys Playing Video Games.

And this is coming from a gamer. 

And it was because they pushed those three quadrants – how many, how often, how loud – to the breaking point.   It started as once a week, maybe twice.  Four to seven dudes would take over our living room and play X Box sportings.    They would yell and drink and barbecue.   This was fine.   Enjoyable even – I’d come home on a dinner break from the bookstore and somebody would shove a beer into one hand and a burger into the other.    Woot, right?

But then it took over the house.  It spread like the wriggly mud-monster from Princess Mononoke and devoured our home-lives.   Shandi and I would cower in her bedroom – the farthest possible place from the living room – between the hours of five pm and midnight, four nights a week.    Three walls and a door between us and the x-box, yet still the bellows of the dudes would rattle the glass in her picture frames.   Sometimes her laptop wouldn’t go loud enough to be heard over the cacophony of “DUDE!  DUDE that was SICK!  Did you SEE that!”       It wasn’t the mess or the boy-ness or the video games that were the problem, it was the fact that two of us were being muscled out of our shared environment by one person at least 50% of the time.

And that brings us to the final, overarching theme:

4.)  FAIR USE.  

In all things, Roommates should look to this.    Does it constitute fair use?     Two people coming over for tea on a Sunday, hanging out with me in the kitchen?   Fair use.    I had plans for a quiet night but got home and you have a bud over watching a movie?  Sorry self, but that’s Fair Use.      The yard for a barbecue, the house for a birthday kegger – Fair Use.

Things that do NOT qualify as fair use?    How about the roommate who foregoes his bed for the couch, and sleeps there most nights, and sleeps until noon.

BZZZZZZT, nope.    Sorry dude.   Doesn’t matter that you “don’t care if I wake you up” in the morning.   This isn’t about you, this is about how it feels to live with somebody who monopolizes shared space.  It’s about how if someone wants to get up and watch the news they oughtn’t have to deal with your snoring carcass in the middle of the fucking living room.

Dishes that span every ounce of counter space and aren’t cleaned up ’till the next morning?   BZZZZT.  nOpe.    Don’t make me wash your shit so I can make my food, because for one you aren’t going to wash MY dishes now that I’m done cooking are you?   You made spaghetti and I made a hamburger so my hamburger pan is not “your dish” anymore, and it all breaks down.

How much of the space do you occupy in relation to your roommates?  Are there two of you? You get half the space.   Are there four?  You get one fourth.   Are you taking over the house more than 1/4 the time?  You better touch base, because you might just be pissing people off.  It doesn’t even need to be an actual pissoff, the thing you’re doing  – all that needs to happen is for someone to continuously give off the impression that they are taking more than their fair share.   If you frequently give no indication that you respect the basic boundaries of living alongside each-other.   Because once that happens, you become untrustworthy, and people start living on edge around you.  Shoulders tense in anticipation of the careless violations they assume you are about to commit.   Nobody likes this.

If I can’t count on you to get the hint that you’re not invited to my date dinner.   If you can’t count on me to not just park on the couch for 20 hours a day playing Skyrim.

Part of being a good roommate is voluntarily ceding space.    Without being asked.    It is the dance of courtesy, and it’s delicate, but oh-so-important in the long run.

And after 32 years, this is most DEFINITELY the long run.

As promised, I will now list the things at which I am terrible:

I collect bowls in my room.  I try and bring them down when I see that the supply is low in the cupboard but sometimes that means there aren’t enough bowls for other people.    This is bad and not-good.

I keep forgetting to clean the bathroom.  It’s not laziness, it’s stupidity, but that doesn’t matter.  The point is it’s my turn.

I stay in my room for hours on end, so much so that I didn’t come home for two days this week and my room-mates didn’t notice a difference.   This is bad for if I am dying or kidnapped and it takes a week for anybody to notice that I’m not around.   It’s not really bad for the room-mates, I guess.

I have too many shoes and they take up too much mud-room space, and I never put them away properly I just kick them off and go.

There’s probably lots of others.  But there’s a sampler, at least.     And now, I will go clean the bathroom

because it’s my fucking turn.

*Edit, 4:15 pm.*

I feel it is important to note: I have lived with these people but I have also BEEN these people.   Some of those 47 roomies of mine would tell you – correctly – that I was the problem.   I have learned a lot of hard lessons about myself through this specific crucible.    Eaten some pretty large slices of crow.   It’s part of the deal, and it goes both ways.    

Also, this is in no way directed at my current roommates, who are kind and attentive and who I would in no way risk angering to the point of short-sheeting my bed or poisoning my food.