July 13, 2018
Nevada City, CA
It is summer in my town in the Sierra foothills of California, which means that the early-morning temperatures are divine and the rest of the day is lost to sweat and thick-headedness or the creepy chill of air conditioning. I’m always better in the morning anyway, a genetic trait, so it’s not really a hardship for me to get up at 5:30 in order to think straight or do a little work in the garden. Right now it’s light by then, in case you’re not an early riser, and watching the world go from black to black-and-gray to color is a wonderful thing. This progression of beauty makes it easier to clean the cat box and take out the trash, believe me.
Some miscreant has been stealing my favorite table at the café, so I have to get there right when they open at seven in order to claim it. Today this worked, and I was very pleased. Perhaps even, I’m sorry to say, smug. Now that we’re all talking about entitlement and privilege out in the open, it’s good to examine one’s own large and small portions of these things and take stock. I’m a white middle-class poet, born in San Francisco to transplanted New Englanders who were in sight of being upper middle class until my dad lost the family money investing in America’s first waterbed company. I know, doesn’t it sound like a joke? We’re the kind of people who had trust funds for college, so I could keep going even when Innerspace Environments tanked the year I was a sophomore.
Ever since then, sometimes alone but often with the help of a friend whom I call my “poverty consultant,” I’ve been watching myself and my behavior, assumptions, expectations, etc. in relation to this upbringing. It’s pretty embarrassing. No one else I know admits they have a favorite table anywhere and gets up early in order to beat everyone else to it. How competitive can you be?! Yick. On the other hand, sitting at coffee shop tables is in my job description, so it’s not entirely self-involved, I do spend a heck of a lot of time there. Other tables would do, it’s just that I don’t like them quite as much, and my background set me up for realizing what I like and expecting to get it.
My poverty consultant, who is also white, never expected to get anything. She expected to be turned away at people’s front doors and to not be helped in stores, two things I’d never even heard of before we started talking about this stuff. I cannot—truly it’s hard, even though I’m a writer and regularly use my imagination—I cannot really conjure up what it would feel like to walk into a store and not be welcomed. The closest I can get to social discomfort in that way is remembering my freshman-year college essay class, in which I was the lone female among 25 students and a male professor, and pretty much ignored. This was so painful I nearly dropped out of college over it, but my good-girl training wouldn’t let me become a dropout, even though it was the early ’70s and starting to be more de rigueur. This was also Harvard, and I was third generation, so while my parents wouldn’t have minded, they said later, I clenched my teeth and got a B, also fairly unheard of. I was already a feminist—this sealed the deal.
I’m supposed to be telling you about my day, though, not the history of my cluelessness. Where was I? Breakfast.
Since it’s so dang hot, every morning I have to make the decision about when to go swimming. I am a working adult, but I run my own schedule, luckily, and allow room in it every day for swimming. The question is, do I go up to the lake in the early morning, when it’s flat and calm and unpopulated? The water’s a bit colder then, it’s quieter, no wind has come up to cast choppy waves up my nose. It’s pretty nice. The only trouble is that I’m not as overheated yet as I’m going to be in the afternoon. I go swimming for the turquoise/teal color of the water, the beauty of the forested setting, as a way to stretch my muscles, and for heat relief. Any exercise I get is completely incidental. The other important benefit is that swimming soothes my homicidal ideation (another entitlement), which abates after about 10 minutes, coincidentally right when I’m sidestroking past a moored sailboat named Reprieve.
Today, after composing and recording a radio commentary about skunks, teaching writing to my cancer class (which boosts the immune system), and eating tuna fish on rosemary crackers for lunch, I went to the lake at 4 p.m. I dodged motorboats trying to land at the dock, ignored the voices of screaming children and boom boxes, wended my way through the packs of dogs that were not on leashes despite all the signs, and dove into that gorgeous color as if my life depended on it. Which it did, and still does, and probably always will do.
I’m no longer homicidal, and possibly even a bit less entitled than I was earlier today, too, having chosen to join the metaphoric huddled masses and their damned dogs. They, in the end, are just a bunch of hot humans like me, trying to cool off and pursue happiness.