Ritual Confessions

January 31, 2008

Adventures in Vancouver

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 5:23 am

Today I went to the Vancouver Mall and got halfway to the psuedo-Borders (which had been the draw — I had mapquested the nearest bookstore and supposedly there was a Borders at the mall) before nearly losing my will to live. Even as malls go, this one is horrible — chock full of the cheesiest stores and the skeeviest people. The bookstore turned out to be a Borders Express, a concept I hadn’t been familiar with before today. It was about the size of a closet and had nothing I wanted. It sounds very melodramatic, I know, to say that the experience left me feeling nearly physically ill, but it did. I’m not sure what this was about. Maybe it’s about my low-grade fear about the area in which we now live. We are so happy, despite all the difficulties, with our house… but I have this vague fear about the denizens of the neighborhood. If I had to articulate this fear as succinctly as possible, I’d say I’m afraid that they’re the kind of people who would swerve to hit an animal in the road.

An antidote of sorts came an hour later, when I brought Charlotte to the Firstenburg Community Center for our first visit. They have an unbelievable indoor pool. Some of its features include an area for kids with zero depth and dramatic, brightly painted equipment (spinning wheels, stationary water “rides,” little fountains, a bright pink pail overhead that flips back and forth as it fills up with, then empties of, water). There’s also a giant water slide, a section where you can float around a serpentine little maze on a current, and lots of colorful kickboards and floats shaped like animals. Charlotte was enchanted and entranced. It’s a beautiful community resource and it made me feel that this area has its redemptive aspects.


January 30, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 5:09 am

Throughout this past year, as I’ve become acquainted with the blogosphere, I’ve seen the curious word NaNoWriMo floating around and vaguely wondered what it was. Something made me look it up today, and for those who don’t already know, it’s an annual event wherein participants write an entire novel of 50,000 words, or 175 pages, within the month of November.

I found the idea powerfully appealing, for many reasons. First, it encourages folks to write badly, urges us to write badly, in the service of writing at all. So often, the self-imposed pressure to produce great art inhibits us from producing anything. I’m a real believer (theoretically) in spilling onto the page and cleaning up later. In practice, I find this very difficult to do. The commitment, however, to churning out a novel within thirty days’ time would leave me no real choice but to write a ghastly first draft.

Second, I love instant gratification as much as the next person. The idea of being able to write a book in a month (even a bad one) is very seductive.

As November is far away, I began toying with the idea of adapting the concept for, say, February. Of course, I’d be sacrificing the communal aspect of the whole thing, but maybe I’d be accomplishing something worthwhile as I’m seeking employment. I also wondered about the idea of using this blog as the context for it. My public resolution has indeed motivated me to post nightly even when tired, uninspired, and/or at a loss for what to write. Maybe I could write a page or two (or six) of fiction a day, a la Scheherazade, and post it here.

Anyway, I’m just thinking about it for now. None of this is yet a resolution. Contributing to this site every day has been very effective for me, and I don’t want to ruin it by turning it into something I won’t keep up.

January 29, 2008

“Snow Day” Rant

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 4:50 am

This morning as I drove Charlotte to Montessori, the scantiest snow was drifting from the sky and dusting the houses and trees. The roads were absolutely clear. I was completely unsuspecting and beyond incredulous when I saw that the school’s parking lot was empty, the building was dark, and the director was not at her usual post on the front walk, where she welcomes the children each morning. I’d been warned that Portland and Vancouver went into a helpless tailspin at the slightest hint of a snowfall, but clearly I failed to comprehend the extent of this particular brand of local lameness.

In seething disbelief, I began canceling every planned aspect of my day (a stop at the old house to load the last of our belongings into the car and to clean the premises before turning in our keys; a stop at Powell’s to sell boxloads of books; shopping for heavy and unwieldy items like shoe racks and baby gates; a few hours of strenuous work on the new house).

Charlotte is at an age that demands minute-to-minute vigilance. In a consignment store the other day, I turned my head for one moment and she walked straight through the automatic set of doors to the sidewalk outside, which flanks a perilously busy parking lot.

Today, after driving away from the school, I spent the next ten hours feeding, changing, entertaining and overseeing her. The particular exhaustion of this unbroken stretch of caretaking was easy to bear compared to my impotent rage at the school system. By 11:00 a.m. the sun was out and the roads were dry. Not a trace of white remained anywhere. And this, this is a snow day! This furious refrain played in my mind hour upon hour. I could not let it go.

January 28, 2008

A first, plus — a la David Rochester — a bonus feature

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:14 am

In our new kitchen, there is a recess in one wall where the refrigerator is supposed to fit. Unfortunately, the stone countertop on the adjacent cabinet jutted out too far to allow the fridge to back in. We asked several knowledgeable folks, over the last month, whether the stone could be trimmed and were told it would be easier to replace it altogether. Yesterday my husband announced, “They’ve got to be able to cut this stone at Home Depot. They’ve got every tool in the world,” and he lifted it off and put it in the back of our car.

He approached a succession of workers at Home Depot and was given discouraging news by one after the next. No, there was no department within Home Depot that could perform this task. No, it was not as simple a procedure as he seemed to think. It required highly specialized machinery. It was an eighteen-step process. It involved a diamond-coated blade and a steady stream of water to cool this blade on its way through the marble.

A slavic-looking man who was standing nearby caught the drift of this conversation. He approached Nick and addressed him in Russian. They conferred a moment in their native language, and the man wrote an address on a slip of paper.

Nick later described the premises as resembling a “Mafia warehouse”. It was full of Russian builders. One of them (with a dramatic scar stretching from his left ear to the corner of his mouth) took Nick’s stone, set it on a nearby table, and took a tool from his belt which — according to my husband — was a standard item in any American’s tool belt; there were a thousand of them at Home Depot. He applied it to the stone and within minutes, he had trimmed it to the dimensions Nick had specified.

In the years I’ve known my husband, I have never heard him compare Russia or anything Russian favorably with its American counterpart. But as he replaced the stone atop the cabinet, where it now fit perfectly, and eased the refrigerator back into the space allotted for it, I could hear him muttering under his breath. Eighteen-step process, my ass… I spent more time talking to these fucking Americans than it took that Russian guy to get it done.

Bonus feature:

This morning, our cat Mac was curled at my side in bed when Nick brought Charlotte in to me; she needed to nurse. As he handed her over and I settled her in beside me, Mac was unceremoniously displaced.

“Poor Mac,” I crooned ruefully as he jumped down.

“He’s not poor,” my husband said. “He’s filthy rich.”

January 27, 2008

Zen exercise

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 5:54 am

I’ve just accomplished the delightful task of pulling off all the wallpaper in the room I want to use for creating collages. I’ve never removed wallpaper before. Beneath the paper was a layer of adhesive which also had to come off. It took hours and hours. We bought a kit from Home Depot created for a 3-step process: there was a tool for scoring the paper, then a spray for loosening it, and finally a scraper for scraping it off. I am here to tell you that this is a huge waste of time and money; it is utterly useless. All you need is water and a sponge, to dampen it down first. I pulled off 99% of it — all except the fragments closest to the ceiling that I couldn’t reach even with a chair. I feel as though I’ve spent the entire day in a gym. But the room is ready for paint: a shade of cream that the Behr folks call “Navajo White” for the lower portion of the room (the section beneath a horizontal wooden beam). For the upper portion, a pale shade somewhere between lilac and periwinkle they named “Twilight Pearl”. (I think the job of naming shades of paint would be nice work if I could get it.)

It was a startling pleasure to choose the colors. A pleasure to have such choices — the freedom to create my own idea of an artistic sanctuary. As tedious as the paper stripping was, it was a good day for such an activity — gray with icy rain. It was satisfying to be accomplishing this cozy and domestic chore, and it will be lovely to soak in a bath before going to bed.  

January 26, 2008

The man under the house — continued

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:32 am

After hanging up with my mother, I felt myself breaking a sweat. This was the kind of foreboding I did not want to share with Nick. If I did, I feared he would not be able to contain his hostility toward Jack, and I didn’t want Jack as an outright enemy. Not with him working right next door day and night. Not with his intimate knowledge of our house. Already I felt as if he were everywhere — that he saw me whenever I left the house and knew when I returned.

Once my husband came home and Jack showed back up, I made myself scarce with the excuse of putting the baby down. Distantly I heard them conferring about the leak, and I heard my husband turning on different sources of water in both of the upstairs bathrooms. Finally, I heard our front door open and close. Charlotte was nearly asleep. After about ten minutes I was able to transfer her to her crib and join Nick in the kitchen. Jack was nowhere to be seen but I still felt as if he were watching me, listening to me. I felt worn out with all the difficulties of the past several days — depleted, on edge, nerves frayed. I couldn’t tell whether my mounting fear of Jack was exaggerated or realistic. I felt alone with it.

“Is he gone?” I asked Nick in a hushed tone.

“No, he’s under the house,” my husband told me. “In the crawl space, looking at the heat ducts.”

My skin prickled, hearing this; a shiver crawled along my spine. And suddenly I felt as I were watching this scene from outside, as it unfolded on a stage or a screen: the vast house, warmly lit from within, surrounded by darkness. The troubled wife, full of trepidation, treading lightly on the kitchen floorboards, whispering to her husband. And the workman beneath her feet, beneath the house, staring overhead: all knotted muscle and gritted teeth, mythical, bristling, a denizen of the underworld, a proletarian bent on mutiny.

His presence directly below us conjured a slew of terrifying associations: the intruder in the basement, the rapist under the bed, the lawlessness in the steerage of a ship, DeNiro clinging to the underside of Nick Nolte’s car in Cape Fear. Nothing he told me in that moment could have been more viscerally unsettling.

And yet, even in the midst of feeling this way, I fell in love with the image. I thought, I must use this in some written work at some point — the man under the house.

January 24, 2008

The man under the house — continued

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 9:49 pm

But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. We’d offered this man the job and apparently it had taken him all morning to get here. Reluctantly, I told Jack I felt I had to honor our previous arrangement.

“But listen,” I said, finding myself wanting to appease him, “I have a ton of work I want done on the house. My daughter’s room was just the first order of business. I want to strip the wallpaper off the walls in another room and then paint that one too, and rip up some carpet and put down wood floors…” and I went on detailing my long wish list of renovations.

I brought him inside to show him the areas I was talking about. He’d named his $100 price so fast; I tried to get an idea of what he’d want to do other things. But now he became evasive, saying he charged by the hour and it was impossible to know how long such jobs would take.

“Like you never know what you’re going to find under that wallpaper,” he told me.

I went over to the wall and ripped off a long strip. “Well, you can look at it now,” I said. I told him I didn’t like to pay by the hour because I feel that in such a situation, workers have no incentive to get a job done in a timely manner.

“Oh, hey, I don’t screw around,” he said. “I get it done.”

I didn’t point out that at that very moment, he was presumably on the clock of the owner next door while chatting me up.

“Well, at the very least, I’d need a guarantee that the job wouldn’t cost more than a certain amount,” I said.

He looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. I realized that we were already on somewhat adversarial terms and I began to wish I’d never entered into this conversation.

“Well, look, I’m sure we’ll figure something out,” I said, in a tone meant to wrap up the discussion.

But when I returned to the house late that afternoon to pay the painter, Jack appeared in the driveway again.

“Listen, I’ll come up with a fair price to give you guys,” he said. “I thought about what you were saying and I understand how you feel.”

I told him I appreciated this, citing the many costs associated with buying a house and telling him we wanted to rein in our spending for a while.

I recounted this exchange to my husband when he came home. “So, you know, already it’s awkward,” I concluded. “I all but promised him this work, but he wouldn’t be specific about how much he’d want for it.”

“Why did you even start talking to him?” my husband asked, irritated. “Why didn’t you wait to see if the painter would show up? You’re too impatient.”

He was right, I thought. I never should have started down this path.

The next morning, upon arriving at our new home with our moving truck in tow, we discovered that the house did not have water. It was Saturday, the first day of a holiday weekend. I called the water department and got a recorded message citing their business hours. I called our realtor and got her voicemail. I contemplated three days with no working sinks, showers, or toilets. Then I remembered that Jack was the former owner’s cousin. Maybe he could get Walt on the phone, and he’d be able to help us. I went next door.

Jack told me Walt was out of town. But he accompanied me back to the house and disappeared inside of it. When he resurfaced in our kitchen, he told us that he’d turned the water on.

We were abjectly grateful. My foreboding of the day before evaporated. How lucky that I had made friends with Jack. We had bagels and cream cheese sitting out on the kitchen island, and we invited Jack to help himself to whatever he wanted. He dug in without hesitation. He stayed a long time.

The next morning as my father was taking out a bag of trash, Jack greeted him from the next yard, asked how things were going. My father mentioned the leak to him. He also mentioned a few rooms in the house that weren’t receiving heat. Jack said he’d come by once his working day was done.

Privately my husband said to me, “I don’t want this guy coming over every day.”

“Do you dislike him?”

“Well, I don’t want you to ever be alone with him.”

 “Why not?” I asked. “What’s he going to do? We know who he is. We know where he works. We know his cousin.”

“All right, all right,” Nick said.

As it happened, Jack did not make it over that day because we were gone for most of it, at Ikea and Home Depot until well into the evening. But the next afternoon, just after I’d dropped my parents off at the airport, he was at the door.

“I can take a look at that leak now, if you want,” he said.

I couldn’t think of a reason why not. I led him to the guest room and, because Charlotte was with me, I closed the door behind us.

“It’s been a long time since a girl took me into a room and closed the door,” he said.

I laughed as if this were a joke. “I don’t want the baby to go for the stairs,” I said.

I showed him where the water had come from while Charlotte tugged at my shirt.

“Why are you trying to undress your mommy?” he asked her. Then, to me: “Why do they do that?”

“She wants the milk,” I said abruptly.

“Oh…. so you’re still…”


“It always makes me uncomfortable. To see a woman doing that. Even though it’s beautiful and natural and all that. There was a woman once, I was working on her house, and I walked in on her just after she finished feeding her baby. The baby was done drinking but she hadn’t put herself away yet.”

“Anyway,” I said. “There’s the spot where the water was coming in.”

He scrutinized it. “I’d have to break into that part of the ceiling to see what’s going on,” he told me.

I realized that I was, in fact, very uncomfortable being alone with him. “Let me call Nick,” I said, pulling out my cell phone. “I just want to make sure that’s okay with him.”

“Tell him to wait until I get home,” my husband said immediately. “Just tell him I want to be there to look at the pipes with him.”

I relayed this information to Jack, who looked at me steadily for a moment with an expression I couldn’t decipher. Then: “All right,” he said. “I’ll come back when Nick gets home.”

No sooner had he left than my phone rang. It was my mother, calling from the airport. “I just wanted to tell you,” she said, “not to be alone with that man from next door.”

“Oh,” I said. “Wow. Nick said the same thing. What’s making you say that?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t like the way he was looking at you.”

Hearing this, a little chill set in, the chill of fear. “He was here earlier,” I said. “He made me uneasy too. I won’t be alone with him again. He’s coming back later, after Nick gets home.”


The man under the house

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:37 am

[Entry from Tuesday the 22nd, transcribed]

I was standing in the driveway of the house my family would be moving into the next day. He hailed me from the driveway of the house next door, which was clearly under construction. A workman, well over 6 feet tall and a strapping fellow, with reddish-blond hair, a goatee, dusty clothes, work boots.

“Hey, are you moving in here? It’s a great house. I’m Jack,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Walt’s cousin.” Walt was the house’s former owner.

I was waiting for a house painter who was lost. The night before, upon learning that he was unfamiliar with mapquest and its ilk, my husband had given him meticulous directions over the phone. Afterward, he’d reported that the guy sounded like he was missing a few marbles. I wasn’t confident that he would show up.

“Do you know any painters?” I asked after shaking his hand.

“I’m a painter,” he said. “What do you need painted?”

“Just one small room,” I told him. “But it has to be today. It’s my daughter’s room, and I want at least 24 hours in between having it painted and letting her sleep in it.”

“Okay,” Jack said. “Why don’t I do it on my lunch break?”

“It’ll take longer than a lunch break.”

“Well, I can finish it tonight if need be.”

“Really? Do you want to have a look at the room first?”

No need, he told me. He knew the room. He knew the house, he said, like it was his own. He’d do it for a hundred bucks.

This was an appealing proposition, as the other painter had wanted $150. Just as I began to hope our original man wouldn’t show up, his blue van pulled to the curb across the street.

“Just get rid of him,” Jack urged. “Tell him you changed your mind.”



Another delightful surprise

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 5:44 am

This morning, Charlotte woke us up at 5:30. She sounded especially distressed. When we reached her, the reason for this became clear: her face and hands were ice cold. We cover her with a blanket when we put her to bed, but she always kicks it off. Usually her room is warm enough that it doesn’t matter. But this morning, her room was very cold, as if it hadn’t received any heat for several hours. Soon afterward we realized that the rest of the house hadn’t either.

At first we thought the boiler wasn’t working, but in time it became apparent that our store of oil was completely depleted. When we agreed upon a price for this house, we were explicitly told that the owner was leaving us a full tank of oil. The realtor told us that this represented a $1700 value, and it was one of the main reasons we ultimately agreed to pay several thousand dollars above our bid.

The former owner, a truly nice man who came right over to help us get the oil replenished by the end of the day, was bewildered to learn we’d been promised a full tank. “When our realtor listed the house, the tank was full, and I told her we’d be leaving the oil,” he said. “But that was several months ago, and I guess we used it all.”

We’ll need to find our paperwork (which is somewhere within one of our many sealed boxes), where I know the oil was listed as one of the owner’s concessions. I suspect, though, that it states only that we would be getting what was in the tank, without specifying a gallon or dollar amount. I don’t know what recourse, if any, we’ll have here, but it’s very upsetting. We feel cheated out of nearly $2000.

January 23, 2008

Martin Luther King Jr. and my mother

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:10 am

[Transcribed MLK Day blog]

Having my mother here today brought up some memories:

I was in second grade. It was February, black history month. (Years later, in college, I would hear Angela Davis speak, and one of her comments would stay with me: “Yes, I think it’s nice that in this country, they’ve designated a month to acknowledge black history,” she said, “but February is still the shortest… and the coldest… month of the year.”) Anyway, back in second grade, we were learning in school about Martin Luther King. And that evening, in the mall, a King biography for young adults was on display. I picked it up and brought it over to my mother.

“Mom, can I have this book?” I asked.

She glanced over at it. “Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Absolutely.”

And I had the sense of having asked for exactly the right thing, of incurring her unequivocal approval.

Thinking about this made me remember something else. When I was in grade school, the kids in each class were given a chance, several times a year, to order books at a discount through the school. Everyone received a little pamphlet to take home, listing the featured books along with brief descriptions of their story lines; at the back was an order form. And no matter how many of these books I wanted — and I always wanted a lot of them — my mother always let me get them. There was nothing she was happier to spend money on.

Growing up, my brother and I were allowed to watch very little TV. Our average viewing time was two hours a week. And I can remember my mother refusing to indulge any number of my wishes: for one of the colorful lollipops at Howard Johnson’s, or the tantalizing Sit’n’Spin toy I saw on one of those rare television commercials, or a canopy bed. But not once in my life can I remember her refusing me a book.

Today, I don’t own a television, and I never have. I just transported, from Portland to Vancouver, box upon box upon box of books. And Martin Luther King Day makes me sentimental.

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