The feel of home

The small, rural San Joaquin Valley town where I grew up is not a place that garners much national press, at least as far as travel goes. Oh, there’s an article in Saveur here, or a few blurbs in AAA’s Via magazine there—even a one-off “36 Hours in Fresno” in The New York Times—but the Central Valley is not SoCal or the Bay Area. It can be a tough sell to a travel editor who doesn’t see many people making the trip out there, and to see what?

The Empty Cup by Miche Watkins. It reminds me of
an old truck-stop diner that was razed to make way
for the new highway near where I grew up.

Still, I never fathomed how much I’d internalized the idea of the valley not “counting,” sights-wise, until I started to see images that validated my own experience of growing up there. Even travel stories in respected publications don’t peg what it was like on balmy summer evenings when my dad would pile all of us neighborhood kids into the back of his Datsun pickup and take us for rides in the country. We’d be talking and laughing, wind in our faces, the smell of damp earth rising up from the irrigated orchards, crickets and cicadas chirping incessantly, moonlight glowing down. Or how it was to grab our bikes and go for a ride along bumpy country avenues that sloped past vineyards at sunset, pedaling madly whenever a dog would come tearing out of a dirt road, yapping and nipping our heels. 

Travel articles don’t capture the familiar chitchat of longtime parishioners milling around after church services, or Rotary Club or Knights of Columbus pancake breakfasts where everybody knows your name, or how it feels to lie on the grass in summer, reading a book in the shade as a lone plane drones overhead. My hometown was a great place to grow up, even if, by the time I got to high school, I was restless to leave. I wanted to spread my wings, see the world, experience the cultural riches of the big city.

My story is not unique. For years after moving away, first to L.A. for undergrad, then to Eastern Europe with the Peace Corps, then to the Bay Area for work, I’d return to my childhood home only to feel stifled by the memory of who I was. It was as if the ways in which I subsequently strove to define myself would melt away, leaving only what I felt like when I’d left: a gauche, dorky teenager who never quite fit in. But then I realized: Thomas Wolfe may have said, “You can’t go home again,” but you can, actually. You just have to redefine the experience.

There’s the Knight’s Ferry Bridge in California’s Stanislaus County, for instance. Built in 1862–1863, the covered timber truss bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior this past October. I spent the first 18 years of my life just over the border from that county and never knew this bridge existed—and now it’s protected by the National Park Service? Cool. Who knew there was a piece of the storied covered bridges in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County right in my old backyard, or practically? Well, obviously the NPS did, ha. But that’s what I mean: I grew up there and yet there’s more to discover. I love that. I love the idea of being able to approach something I thought I knew with a fresh perspective. I’d like to take all the good of a place and weave it into my personal narrative, without the baggage of my prior notions limiting how I perceive it.

let's get lost

Shaun Sundholm, Untitled (Let’s Get Lost). It reminds me of
the river roads winding through the countryside where I grew up,
and of the canyons where I live now.

(from top, first, third, and last images via the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Tumblr, the National Park Service, and 20×200; middle photo by Ivan Sohrakoff)

When I saw the Natalie Dee comic heading, I knew I’d probably like The Other Courtney’s post; Anxiety Girl has been a secret old favorite of mine since Joanna Goddard first posted it on her blog. :) Goddard has similarly written about anxiety and worry, first on Glamour’s blog Smitten and then on A Cup of Jo, and her thoughts were likewise insightful and her recommendations encouraging and gently funny. It’s always a comfort to know you’re not alone in the vortex of thoughts that can feel isolating. (illustration at right: Garance Doré)

The Other Courtney

Irrational fears are something I spent a good portion of my time in therapy talking about. After a few months and several hundred dollars, my irrational fears no longer caused panic attacks and I was even able to laugh at them! Sometimes I catch myself slipping into my old way of thinking, which is to worry about every little thing. I have often wondered what life would be like if I didn’t worry so much. I know there are people who just don’t care what others think about them or what tomorrow holds, but I can’t fathom what that would feel like. I have been known to even worry about whether or not I’m going to be worried about something! It’s just part of who I am. 

The most important thing I learned in counseling, regarding anxiety, was the skill of observing my own thoughts without judgment. Ken (my phenomenal therapist) would…

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This reminds me of one of Letters of Note’s most popular posts: Tom Hanks (who’s a keen typewriter collector) responding to an interview request on a 1934 Smith Corona, which was actually sent to him as a bribe to do the interview.

Story goes he once bought a $5 typewriter in Australia that cost him $85 to ship home. And he’ll pull up a cafe table in front of, say, the Eiffel Tower, then whip out a typewriter and a glass of wine and start clacking away.

I had no idea he was into this, but it just makes me love ‘im even more. :) It’s just such a cool, classy hobby…old-school. Especially in light of his prolific social media output, which leads me to believe he is fully hooked up with smartphone, tablet, etc. I mean, it’s not as if he’s a total Luddite. The typewriter is just a different, more tactile medium of expression.

More on his hobby, and for the love of electric typewriters:
• How to Bribe Tom Hanks with a Vintage Typewriter (Messy Nessy Chic)
The Quiet Cult of the Olympia Report DeLuxe Electric Typewriter (Gizmodo): “Compared to using a word processor on a PC, using the ORD was an earthy process: Hands-on ribbon changes, the smell of ink, and cranking the platen to see what you just typed,” says writer Steven Levy. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s the ORD that gets so much play (from Greg Kinnear’s character) in You’ve Got Mail.

(photos via The Film Street JournalGawker, and Messy Nessy Chic)

Subject Obscura

With one click of the mouse, I became a collector. I bought a second typewriter.

I bought my first typewriter in October 2011.  Goodwill opened a store in the area, which my partner and I promptly checked out. It turned out to be a well-planned visit as I found a Smith-Corona Classic 12 in fine condition sitting on the shelves, waiting to be snagged by the first analog-enthusiast to cross its path. I didn’t know it yet, but I was one such enthusiast.

Over the months that followed, I would learn how to properly clean it, fix some of the keys that were stuck, and that, while the office supply store does not carry the ribbons I needed, e-commerce would make finding such things possible. Every step of the way, I was excited. I was engaging with a technology that had supposedly become outdated and loving it.

Not least of…

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The Monterey Bay Aquarium has to be one of my favorite places on Earth, particularly come feeding time in the Open Sea exhibit when the tuna FOOM! up like rockets for the food. The story of this vagabond octopus staying hidden for a year in another exhibit, snacking on crabs in the meantime, tickled me when the story first broke this past June.


A baby red octopus is small enough to sleep on your fingernail. Which explains how one managed to sneak into the Monterey Bay Aquarium on a rock or sponge and stow away there for nearly a year, secretly snacking on the aquarium’s crabs, before being found.

The sneaky critter was the size of a fist when it was finally discovered, having climbed out of the Shale Reef exhibit where it was hiding out and crawled into plain sight on the aquarium floor. According to senior aquarist Barbara Utter, it put on all that bulk by eating the legitimate residents: “We’d noticed that there weren’t as many crabs coming out at feeding time in that exhibit. Now we realize that’s where they’d all been going — into the octopus’s [POWERFUL CHOMPING BEAK]!” [It has been pointed out that the word “tummy” in the original quote is kind of goofy, so…

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Minnesota poetry walk

One brisk, golden day, my friend Shona and I set out to realize one of my longtime dreams: tracking down my favorite Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk in St. Paul, Minnesota. Ever since I first read about the public-arts project years ago in the Christian Science Monitor, I’ve wanted to stroll those sidewalks myself.

Judging from the project map, we could park just about anywhere in St. Paul and find a pocket of poetry within a five-block radius, though I knew I probably wouldn’t find all of my favorites in one place.

In my head I pictured taking my time to wander and then stumbling serendipitously across the poems I wanted to see—but it was pretty chilly that day (at least for my Bay Area self), so we were on a mission! I ended up either having my eyes glued to the sidewalk immediately in front of me, shunting fallen leaves with my foot, or looking around the quiet streets with their stately trees and century-old houses while Shona stopped to point out poems I’d breezed right by.

Still, we did pretty well.

Untitled by Kevin Walker

Second Love” by Carlee Tressel

Untitled by Esmé Evans

Bad Day” by Caley Conney (this example is a bit clearer)

Let’s Talk” by Sean Fleming

If I had to choose a favorite, though, this one would be it: “Meadowlark Mending Song” by Margaret Hasse. We did spot one example of it, but I like Andrea’s shot better.

And I did mark #7 off my 2012 bucket list after all! But next time I’ll aim for spring and the cache of poems on Selby and Laurel at Western Ave.

• It’s sort of like Twitter for sidewalks, only more concrete: Each poem has to be 150 characters or less. (via Minnesota Public Radio)
• On sharing the magic of poetry. (via Twin Cities Daily Planet)
• This video brings Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk to life. (via City of St. Paul)
• A slideshow featuring some of the stamps and a few of the poets. (via Weekend America)
• A St. Paul poet’s commentary. (via Minnesota Public Radio)