Swimming with tears

Morning swimming is a habit I’m trying to forge now that I’m finally settled. I joined a health club within easy walk of my home. The challenge is persuading myself to get out of bed early and walk there! I’m retired and could swim at any time of the day — but I know from experience that it’s something I need to get done first thing — else I’ll never get around to it.

Swimming while Alene is on her bus to work seems to be working rather well — because I can listen to her podcast while I swim. I expect there is such a thing as a waterproof iPod and earbuds — but I don’t need any equipment — just close my eyes and tune into her ears. The bus ride is around thirty minutes, but I try to be in the water a bit before Alene leaves to give myself a bit more time. Then I get out of the pool as she gets off the bus — and by the time she’s at her desk with her coffee, I’m back in my apartment enjoying a cup of tea.

Alene is finally adjusted to my living in her part of Seattle — but she’s still skittish about running into me — as she discovered last Saturday night. We went to bed rather early and listened to an episode of PRI Selected Shorts — with two short stories we had heard before (this podcast does a lot of repeats.)

The first was about an American who is just minutes away from the happiest moment of his life — on a family holiday in Scotland. It’s a story with almost no action — just his thoughts as he watches his wife and two teenaged children nap on the train. It’s awfully charming — but I was very tired and dozed off. I’ll let Alene take over with what happened next…

(Alene)
As I lay listening with my eyes closed, I suddenly found myself in a beautiful room. The wooden floor had an absolutely perfect satiny finish — and the room was bathed in sunshine from the windows — not the bright, aggressive sunshine of summer which bothers me so — but the gentle, low-angle sunshine of an autumn morning.

My attention was drawn to the door, which I knew led out to the front porch. Although I didn’t recognize the room, it was somehow familiar to me. But I couldn’t bring myself to walk out the door to the front porch — because I knew I’d find him out there — and I just wasn’t ready to meet him — even though it would be the happiest moment of my life.

I started weeping — from a sudden rush of joy — but at the same time I found myself sobbing, “I’m not ready yet. I can’t do it. Not right now. I’m not ready yet.”

Three years ago, I (we) read The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton — and we both held our breath as Newland Archer stood on a street in Paris gazing up at the window of the apartment where Ellen Olenska lived — only to walk away. I was overwhelmed with grief at the very idea — and sat in the coffee shop clutching my Nook with my face turned to a wall so that no one would see the tears pouring down my face. My Nook stayed parked on that final page for over a year.

This idea keeps visiting us.

But I just can’t imagine myself walking out onto the porch.

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Moving right along

My departure from Nuuk intruded Alene’s morning dreams. I arrived in Reykjavik this afternoon — and I’ve assured Alene this is my final stop before I return to Seattle — hopefully sometime this week!

Alene dreamed she had found my bag at the airport and fancied she would do me a favor by taking it home with her — but when she got it home, she realized I would be missing my luggage! Then she watched someone else open my bag and be amused at some of the contents — especially a certain old-fashioned gadget.

What Alene was picking up was me walking through the airport at Nuuk and going through security. I had to open my bag for a spot search — and the security official was amused by the electronic organizer he found. It was the gadget of the day which preceded the PDA which preceded the smartphone. I used it heavily in the late 1990s, when my cellphone did little more than make phone calls — and a big chunk of my pre-Alene life is preserved in the device so I keep it as a momento — but I do have occasion to refer to it from time to time — and I did find it useful on this trip to Nuuk. Somehow, it has kept working and always comes back to life when I put fresh batteries in it — and I can not bring myself to part with it.

There was not much to see on the flight to Reykjavik on account of clouds so I watched Alene ride the bus from West Seattle to Ballard – a trip of well over one hour. We’ve both been busy lately — and rather missing the ways we used to spend time together — before the modern internet got us absorbed with our smartphones. It was pouring with rain when Alene headed out, so she put her iPhone safely away in an interior pocket of her bag, instead of having it handy in an outer pocket where it might get wet — and she ended up leaving the phone there for the entire trip. So instead of listening to a podcast, we just enjoyed watching life in and from the bus — and the silly things we find funny.

If you are into keeping your nails well manicured, there is no excuse for not keeping up with it in Seattle. In some neighborhoods, there are more nail salons than coffee shops. We passed several which announce their business with a big, lighted neon sign in the window saying just “Nails.” For the first time, it struck as as funny — perhaps because we both imagined our mutual (and ever so handy) friend Allen going in and asking for 8d 2-1/2” 316 grade Ringed stainless steel deck nails!

Alene’s bus trip involved a transfer in Ballard, and by the time she got off the bus she was in need of a restroom. But there was a Safeway handy so she got to use the restroom — only to then just miss her next bus. I reminded her that a) she was running way early, as we both tend to do; b) she was now comfortable from having used the restroom; c) it had stopped raining, and so d) she could enjoy walking the rest of the way — and probably still have time for a coffee before the event she was attending (a group walk) got underway. And it worked out great!

Seattle’s being soaked by the remnants of a Pacific tropical storm — and Alene spent over an hour walking in it. Her raincoat and boots gave out about ten minutes from the end of the walk. You know that feeling — you go from being completely dry to completely sodden inside — once your outer layer gets wetted through. We scrapped further plans for the day as Alene just wanted to get back home and get dry. Happily, the homeward bus ride was a breeze — and Alene dried out enough in the bus to be persuaded to stop on the way for an errand at the grocery store followed by a venti latte in Starbucks while waiting for the break in the rain showing on the weather radar.

Alene’s now safely home — and I’m happily settled in my hotel in Reykjavik. Now to enjoy some hygge — or whatever it’s called in Iceland.

Weekend confusion

Allen is ready for his July Fourth bonfire tomorrow. Gonna be a good one, he says. He spent most of this morning watching me clean up the cabin — and getting in my way whenever he could. I think he’s a little bored, so I gave him a distraction.

King County Metro is running Sunday bus schedules, Friday/Saturday/Sunday, July 3/4/5.

He’s been running with that information all day. Now, a Sunday schedule on a Sunday makes sense, because it happens every week. And a Sunday schedule on a Holiday that falls on a weekday — that makes sense too. But a Sunday schedule on a Saturday, even if it happens to be July Fourth — well that totally messes with the bus universe!!

Alene was a bit confused too. At my suggestion, she went out early this morning to get coffee and go to the grocery store before it got busy — and hot out. On her way, she saw a USPS mail truck and a mailman walking with his sack. Then a UPS truck passed her. She went by the library to return a book in the drop — but found the library open. I reminded her that USPS and the library are routinely open on Saturday and so will observe the holiday tomorrow. What about UPS, she asked. I didn’t have an answer for that — although the drivers may well be getting holiday pay rates.

Then she began to wonder if she really had the Friday off — or was confused? I reminded her of yesterday’s email about making sure items in the second floor fridge were dated and labeled else they would be thrown out at 2pm. That’s a Friday ritual that would only happen on a Thursday when Friday is a holiday. Even so, she had to log into her workplace intranet to check the official list of observed holidays to make sure July 3 was indeed on it. Really — she’s such a worrier.

Allen found some canned treats in the food stores. Almost everything we brought with us is basic food ingredients — flour, sugar, canned milk, cooking oil, rice, dried beans and so on — as well as just about anything that can be made edible by addition of boiling water. But we did make space for some indulgences, such as rum, cookies — and things like canned franks’n’beans and corned-beef hash, which will be part of our July Fourth fireside picnic tomorrow.

Then Allen’s thoughts returned to buses — and hot buses on hot summer days. He was very happy when Metro purchased its first air-conditioned coaches in 2003 — the 3600-series coaches that are still in service today. But he remembers how hard it was getting the message across to passengers that A/C functions best with the windows closed. Twelve years later, that message still hasn’t gotten through to many Seattle folks.

I told Allen that Alene also passed a few yard sales this morning. At this, he took off his hat to scratch his head in wonder.

“Gonna be a lot of confused people in Seattle this weekend!” he joked.

A way to care

Lately I’m leaving Alene to focus on her work during the day as she’s rather busy. And she rather enjoys her work, for the most part, so I want to allow her to fully engage with it. But in return, I’m becoming a bit more insistent on her following my wishes when she’s not at work.

This afternoon, she left work and walked to the bus stop with no clear plan other than to get the next bus home. But while she waited, she remembered something she had considered the night before — a poetry reading and storytelling evening at a coffee shop she’s been to a few times. It’s a really nice event that Alene attended a few times last year — and she once even took part in the open mic. But today, I leaned on her to forget it — to just do her regular after-work coffee routine. If she had attended, she wouldn’t have got home until well after 10pm — and she would have been really, really tired. Being in a crowd, even the best of crowds, always wears us out.

The mechanism which allows us to communicate over distances in the thousands of miles (whatever it might be) also seems to allow unwanted energies from other people to interact with us. So we have to limit time spent amongst crowds. We are reclusive even by the standards of the most extreme introverts — but that doesn’t mean we do not like people. We enjoy other people very much — but we need to care from a distance. We watch people more than they would ever know — and we sometimes become incredibly attached to people that neither one of us has ever talked with.

There’s a young woman who has shown up recently on one of Alene’s regular buses. We used to see her many years ago on a different bus route — which just happened to be one of Allen’s routes at the time — and he remembers this young lady also. (“I know the one!” he said, with a sure nod when I described her to him.) She caught my eye back then on account of her pretty long red hair, which she wore in a wide range of styles. Although a bit dumpy of stature, she dressed nicely — and she always looked immensely happy with the world and comfortable with herself — and friendly and kind to other people. On a few occasions, we saw her with her boyfriend, who was unabashedly demonstrative of his affection for her. We were happy to see how much he appreciated her.

Then she disappeared. It happens all the time on the bus. And you hope that there’s a normal explanation for it: new work schedule; new apartment elsewhere; pay raise that allowed person to buy new car and give up on the bus; relocation to dream job in different city; moving in with someone else. Nothing to worry about — so you hope.

We wonder what has happened to her in the meantime. She transfers from a bus that comes from a rather rough part of Seattle. Although she still dresses with style, it’s more of a grunge look than the downtown-office-girl clothes she once wore. Her hair is unkept and she sports some very amateurish tattoos. Her face is still wistfully pretty, but it never has a smile — although it still looks gentle and kind. We watch her get off the bus and disappear into the warehouse/industrial district and we wonder where she works now — and hope that her boss isn’t an asshole.

At this point, you might very well ask why Alene doesn’t talk to the girl and get to know her.

Because, we have a sense that a spell might be broken.

Sometimes we can imagine problems where there are none. It’s easy to assume that she got into drugs, took up with some scumbag, and keeps losing jobs. But for all we know, it might be that she is following a dream and playing drums in an all-girl band that keeps her up late at night so that she gets the morning bus to her day job after only a couple of hours sleep.

Our guess is that she is struggling in some way — but that she is also working through something that she needs to attend to by herself — that she’s got her gaze fixed on some distant target as she negotiates a wobbly bridge over a deep chasm — and to distract her attention might cause her to lose her balance and fall.

All we can do is watch — and wonder — and care from a distance.

Now! What would Allen do? Oh, he’d butt in at the first opportunity — freshening up her transfer as an icebreaker. (But he’s rather more experienced at butting in than we are.)

Transit geeks and data geeks

You know you’re a data geek when crunching a few numbers cheers you up at the end of a trying day!

Alene actually had a decent day that was fun for me to watch — relaying highlights to Allen — but she did get a slightly upsetting email right before she left work — and I could feel she was bummed out all the way home on the bus. She listened to a rather boring podcast about Kafka and couldn’t be bothered to search for anything else.

Over coffee, she browsed around the internet and found something that cheered us all up — an article on the Seattle Transit Blog about the top five annoying things about local public transportation. The comments thread had some amusing remarks about the use of rear doors on buses, which I naturally had to pass along to Allen. He was one of those drivers who needed nagging to open the rear door, preferring people to come up front and exchange a few pleasantries and say goodbye properly — although he would grudgingly open the rear door of a 60-footer to avoid trouble.

Another bunch of comments concerned the time it takes for drivers to hand off to each other at a shift change. I’ve seen Allen take over from another driver — and he’s not the fastest at it. He can’t drive until everything is perfect. And just when you think he’s made all the possible adjustments to seat and all those mirrors — and signed into the radio communication system — and fastened his seatbelt and is about to signal to move out into traffic and get underway — he’ll notice a bug on the windshield — and have to climb back out of his seat to take care of it!

Anyway, back to Alene. On her walk home, I reminded her of the phosphate data set she downloaded the other day. We listened to a podcast recently about the impending crisis of the world’s diminishing phosphate supply and about how Morocco has most of what remains and that prompted us to look for some data. We found a data set at the United Nations Statistics Division and I thought we could have fun organizing it tonight. So after dinner, she sucked it into R and reshaped it into a neat’n’tidy .csv file to upload to an online data visualization tool she’s been playing with.

Alene is hardly a power R user, as she doesn’t get to use it in her job, but she does try to use it every few months on a little project at home. She had so much fun learning it back in 2012 — and tonight she got happily absorbed in it. We might start making some visuals tomorrow night and think of a story to tell. Of course, we could do that with R — but she’s trying to get familiar with sexier tools available, so part of the exercise was to have a data set handy to upload whenever she comes across something interesting. We might even post something here if we make something worth sharing.

And, I can report that she is much, much happier now.

Last donut in Seattle

Allen is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. He’s warm, friendly, patient, and very, very kind – excellent qualities in a bus driver. However, he does have a wicked streak that he indulges every now and then — and Seattle bus riders have not been spared.

The so-called “Seattle chill” is well known and well documented. But it actually doesn’t bother us that much because we didn’t move here to put down roots and make friends, let alone have a neighbor bring over a house-warming casserole. What DOES bother us is the competitive politeness bolstered by well-disguised passive aggression.

In London, we queue (line up) for buses. And there’s a good reason for it. At rush hour, fully loaded buses have to pass up stops frequently. Fortunately, on most routes, buses come frequently enough that you won’t necessarily have to wait long for the next one — and the orderly queue that forms makes sure that the people who have been waiting the longest get first dibs on the next bus to arrive. Allen has watched it on YouTube and finds it quite amazing.

When a bus pulls up to a stop in Seattle, everyone waiting just looks at each other — daring each other to be the first to get on the bus — and hence the most selfish asshole. Alene is often the selfish asshole who breaks the deadlock. On a busy afternoon, the hesitation would drive Allen nuts! So he would count to five — and then start to close the front door. That would get everyone moving in a hurry!

And then there’s the business of donuts in the workplace. What happens with the last donut? Well, where I worked in London, it was considered courtesy, before taking the last donut, to make an announcement — “I’m having the last donut if no one wants it!” — and then wait for anyone to protest. Usually, you’re just told to have at it. You see, the person who takes the last donut is also responsible for clearing up — putting the box in the garbage, or washing the plate.

In a Seattle workplace, that last donut gets cut in half — then in half again — and into progressively smaller wedges. I wonder what the Greater Seattle record is for the smallest office donut remnant — measured in degrees of arc. And I wonder which company owns that achievement: Microsoft? Amazon? Starbucks? Zillow? Zulily? Has a Boeing engineer designed a jig that cut a donut with the precision of one second of arc? And will Top Pot Doughnuts discover a formula that produces a donut with the structural integrity to withstand being reduced to a one second sliver?

No one can bring themselves to just finish off the donut — because that would be so inconsiderate (and also involve the inconvenience of having to clean up afterwards.) Of course, Alene is not afraid to take the last donut — and she will clean up afterwards.

As for Seattleites forming queues? Don’t get me started! We have seen lines in Starbucks going from counter to door — with all of three people in them!! That’s another thing that drives Allen nuts. Of course — he’s not from Seattle.

Allen and Alene

Alene had been in Seattle around two years when she first encountered Allen. She was unaware that I had got to know him a few months before we were connected in 1999. I wondered whether I should tell her — and then I wondered if I should first tell Allen.

I have kept this story largely to myself — and unfortunately may have missed the window of opportunity in which I might have been able to prove my connection with Alene, thanks to the ever-growing sophistication of communications possible via the internet. But in the summer of 2000 I gave it a try.

My wife and daughter bullied me into therapy, because I was no longer the person they had known. I cooperated and rather liked the psychologist I ended up working with. In the confines of her office, I felt OK to tell her about Alene — and how I could see with her eyes and hear with her ears. I suggested I could prove it and one day I asked Alene to drive to the nearest airport in time for my appointment. Alene looked on the monitors for flights that were either cancelled or very delayed. In front of my counselor, I wrote down the details of each such flight — and suggested she verify them herself later. She took the list and put it in my file. I’m not saying that she didn’t believe me — but it seemed to me that she’d rather not know either way. That summer, Alene and I thought up other exercises. She suggested using the real-time numbers of the Dow Jones Industrials Index as they updated in the corner of her TV screen on MSNBC. The doctor could watch the numbers somewhere online as I read them off with my eyes closed. But that somehow never happened. And I started doubting myself sometimes — even though I had had plenty of confirmation that what I saw through Alene’s eyes was real. For example, on the day Concorde crashed, I slept late and heard about it first via Alene’s TV. When I finally got up and turned on my own radio, I heard the news there too. So I knew this wasn’t just “all in my head.” And once we were both in Seattle, I was able to “ground truth” everything I saw — then I knew for sure.

But for Alene, it’s really all been just “in her head” — until Allen came along — forging a link between the reality around her and the scenario in her head. I decided I ought to attempt to explain it all to Allen. I intercepted the bus for the last run of his shift — and he didn’t question why I stayed on the bus as he deadheaded back to the base. He dropped me off somewhere on Second Avenue and asked where he should meet me later. I was staying at the Olympic Hotel and suggested he just show up there.

Over beers, I told him the whole story. It took a while, because he kept interrupting me and asking questions. It’s one of his irritating habits — and he wants to know the minutest of details. Earlier that day, while Alene was on his bus, I had witnessed Allen interrogating an old lady who had been complaining to him about a plumber who she felt had overcharged her for some rather shoddy work. I quoted to him the content of that conversation almost word for word — and for once, he was speechless!

“I don’t know why the US government wastes money holding Al-Queda suspects in Guantanomo Bay,” I said to him. “They should just bring one of them to Seattle and make him ride your bus. By the end of your shift you’ll have got him to tell you where Osama bin Laden is — moonlighting as a cab driver in Kandahar, or something like that!”

We enjoyed a long laugh over that — and then he let me finish my story about Alene. If he were surprised or disturbed he didn’t show it. Instead, he asked what I wanted him to do about it. I asked if he could keep an eye out for Alene and perhaps be a casual friend — the way he was with the other regulars on the bus. But he wasn’t to tell her anything about me. I told him what had happened the time I attempted to meet her in person.

“Ah, so that’s why she’s so skittish with me,” he joked. “I was wondering what I’d done.”

The next time Alene was on his bus, she found that the rear door didn’t open when she requested her stop — and she had no choice but to go to the front door. Allen stopped her and asked her name. Then he introduced himself. She got off the bus a little perplexed — but rather excited. And on the way home to her apartment, I told her about him.

And thus opened a rather sweet chapter in her life.