Monday, December 23, 2013



My house in Wallingford, site of many woes these past months.

Three days ago, on January 20th, I made it the airport for my end-of-year flight back to DC. It felt like no small feat. It was the end of a long, weird year. 2013 started with me freshly turned forty, swiftly followed by freshly single, and as a result with no place in Seattle to live so lingering on, like stale forgotten flowers, at my parents’ house for six months.


Also this year I was bitten by a tick, either while swing dancing, or on my way home from swing dancing in urban DC. That was June, which I largely spent wiped out on antibiotics. In August, finally out of my parents’ house and optimistically settling into my aging craftsman house in Seattle, I launched a basement remodel that I’d expected to take one month and instead took five, (and probably took five times the money I’d planned on, although I stopped totaling up the expenses, as a way to avoid crying).


The first couple months of the remodel, with people coming and going and making tremendous noise and wanting to talk to me no matter what I happened to be doing, were difficult. It was all so antithetical to my quiet, hermetic, artistic way of being that I had to control myself from screaming on a daily basis. I was working with people who were mind-bogglingly difficult to work with, and with others who were as lovely as angels, if angels ever came to earth in the form of plumbers and carpenters and handymen—carpenters and handymen who make a tremendous racket as they tear apart portions of your house and then expect to have conversations with you about it, whether or not you’re trying to eat lunch or take a nap or be quietly artistic at that moment.


That was the first part of the remodel, when I was chronically refraining from screaming. Round about mid October, just after the new concrete floor and had set and the new windows were installed and the first of the framing went in, I got sick from all the chemicals in the construction materials. Suddenly one afternoon my arms shook and my teeth chattered, although I wasn’t cold, and my heart was racing about two hundred and fifty beats a minute. All I could do was watch my flapping hands while I sobbed uncontrollably and thought about how impossibly hard it was to put one foot in front of the other.


The tiny part of my brain that still operated rationally connected how I was feeling to the intense smell of carpenter’s adhesive that had risen from the basement and filled the first and second floor in the last few days, no matter how wide I opened the windows. This rational brain screamed at the much bigger, louder irrational part of my brain until I managed to pack up a few things, find Cleo’s leash and her food, and go to spend the night on my friend Ghusun’s couch.


It should have come as no surprise to me, that this had happened. I have had extreme chemical sensitivity for years. On a regular basis I fret about inhaling perfume and air fresheners. I scrutinize the labels of all food and skin products I buy. i worry about the finish on furniture and I hold my breath when a diesel truck drives by. Certainly I was going to buy low V.O.C. paint for the house, but I didn’t stop to think that the plumbers used chemicals when installing pipes, and the carpenter used chemicals when gluing in the framing, and the concrete sealant I’d put on the basement walls, to keep out water and prevent mildew, was chock full of chemicals. No wonder I was trembling and shaking and paralyzed with panic.
Ghusun told me to stay as long as I needed. I thought I’d be at her place for a week or two, until the remodel was done. Six weeks later I was still there. Her living room was now my home. Ghusun, caught up in her own professional worries, was too distracted to notice how much time had gone by, or that I was now closer to her roommate than her temporary guest. We’d developed a routine that included me cooking dinner for both of us, or making large elaborate salads which we shared each night. Then she did some work she’d brought home from the office and went to bed, while I took Cleo for long walks. I was deliberately staying up late so I’d be asleep and out of Ghusun’s way while she got ready for work in the morning.

By then I’d discovered that very important parts of my house, large wooden parts that connected the walls and floor to the concrete foundation, were rotting, and also that other parts of my house had no foundation at all. But not to worry because these things were slowly being taken care of, although at times they were even more slowly not being taken care of, because the people who had agreed to take care of these things went to other houses to take care of other things that they’d also agreed to take care of, before they’d agreed to take care of my foundation-related things. Thus these other things took priority over my things, although my things, being related to my foundation, were very, very worrying to me.

Also for various reasons, my foundation things had to be taken care of before the rest of my basement remodel could be taken care of. My house now looked like a patient cut open on a heart surgeon’s table, and the doctors had walked away. For days and weeks it stayed that way, lonely and abandoned. Sometimes I picked rocks out of the mounds and mounds earth that had been dug up around the foundation, and I put the rocks in piles as a way to console myself.


During those weeks, I was often failing to refrain from screaming and crying, but generally managing to do the screaming and crying when only Cleo was there to witness it. I was living too far from my house, which I still needed to go to every day, not to mention the drives to the Home Depot and the Green Depot (more on that in another post) and as a result I drove more than I should and my tendonitis came back. I stopped going swing dancing and scarcely wrote at all. I didn't want to leave Cleo alone at Ghusun's, so she rode in the back of my car and gave out operatic wails every moment we were in motion, no matter how many dog toys and bones and toy-treat-dispensers I bought to distract her. The back seat of my car was slowly being coated in dog hair.

After six weeks at Ghusun’s, I decided I could impose on her no longer. Through airbnb I rented a townhome one block from my house, which was empty while the owner stayed in England for visa issues. This townhome was nice, but lacking in south-facing windows, and the darkness made me feel I was suffocating sometimes, but on the whole I was better off being in my neighborhood. I missed Ghusun, who had come to feel almost like family while I was living in her apartment.


My house at last attached to new foundation.
At last the foundation of my house was fixed. The people who had promised to come work on my basement, however, were not coming to work on my basement. I called them every day and they told me everyday they were coming right over to put in the insulation and start the drywall, etc. And still they did not come. By then I was screaming and crying in the presence of other people, although these people were not the people who had promised to work on the basement, because, as I have mentioned, those people were not around.

All the while I had been postponing many planned doctors’ appointments because I didn’t see how I could change medication while I was under so much stress, or because I was looking for dog day care for Cleo who no longer had a yard to run around in, or because I was researching places to stay on the airbnb website. And also because I was packing my things and lugging them out of Ghusun’s, then unpacking them at the airbnb, then spending the good part of a day figuring out to connect my laptop to the abnormal form of wireless system in the townhome. Most of all I didn’t go the doctor because I was calling people and asking them over and over to please work on my house. All these things took a lot of time. It was not time to try to improve my Lyme symptoms.


I once not only played rugby, but my position was in the front row of scrum, and I loved every minute of it. With no journalism experience, I took a plane to Buenos Aires and was soon making a living as a news reporter there. I've climbed a volcano in Chile, and when I lived in Mexico City I endured forty minutes of sheer terror when my house was robbed in the middle of the night. Not to mention the five years I lived trapped in bed, not able to stand up long enough to brush my teeth, and without knowing the name of my illness. Also, I lived for seven years with an angst-ridden, argument prone, Marxist poet.

I have the  kind of grit that allowed me to send a short story to ninety-four magazines and endure ninety-four rejections before I finally got it published. But a basement remodel (which is a luxurious problem to have) unhinged me. I was obsessed and helpless and miserable and wishing I desperately I could walk away from my broken-open house. And yet I knew the only thing that would set things right was to have my house finished, filled with fresh air and sunlight the way it had been that summer, because the complicated balance of my health depended on a quiet, sunny place where I could be at peace.

At last I made it to see my naturopath. She told me to drink more Green Juice (brand name “Just Veggies,” made by Columbia Gorge Juice Company, and consisting mostly of kale and parsley juice). She said it would help me detox all the chemicals I’d been exposed to while living at my house. I drank more Green Juice, and the more I drank, the less I cried. The basement still did not get done, but I shed fewer tears over it. I went out to the Century Ballroom on swing dance nights. I had heavenly dances with men of all heights and ages and colors and dance styles, and some of these men even asked me for my phone number, but how could I explain that I was too stressed out to date anyone because I was renovating my basement?

Dancing: source of reliable joy.

Finally, the contractors actually did some work, and along the way tried to convince me that leaving out part of the insulation was just fine (they had run out and didn’t want to make an extra trip to get more), and that if water in one of my hose pipes froze during a cold snap it wasn't their fault (although they weren't sure they'd put the insulation into my walls correctly), which meant I kept running over to my house whenever I could stomach it, strapping on a gas mask and inspecting things I didn't quite understand in the basement, so as to reassure myself things were OK.

Just as things were nearing the end, said contractors tried to convince me that the floors were beautifully stained with the soy-based colorant I'd found (called SoyCrete), when the floors were half-covered with spills and streak marks that looked like the work of a two-year-old, while the other half the floors looked like no colorant had gone it at all.

I had to argue and cajole and send many an angry text message to get these men to agree to redo the floors. I drove back to the Green Depot for a non-toxic stripper called Eco Etch Pro and more of the floor colorant made out of soy beans, which the contractors had used so disastrously the first time. There were now less than four days left before I flew home to DC.

The HVAC guys came to add a ventilation fan to my heating system (this was now three days before my flight home) and in the process put holes in the newly finished drywall and broke a newly hung door. I made frantic phone calls to negotiate with the HVAC company about having these things fixed that very same day because the floors needed to be re-stained that night and the last light fixtures installed before I left.

And then I was twenty-four hours away from flying home. The basement was finished. I had paid the HVAC guys. After I’d seen that the floor was done right, I had paid the knuckle-headed contractors. That afternoon I would pay the angelic handyman who was repainting the second floor, and the next day I’d write a check for the absent-minded-but-angelic electrician.

I was recounting all this on the phone to my mother while I walked down the glossy oak stairs of the gloomy airbnb townhome. Suddenly I lost my footing. My socked feet slid straight out from under me and I landed flat on my back, my spine smashing down on edge of a step. It hurt, and kept hurting excruciatingly that day and the next. Lifting things, like my shoulder bag, was painful.

 Nonetheless I managed to get organized and packed, and paid everyone for their work. The next day I made it to the airport with two suitcases, a carryon, a forty pound dog, and dog crate. Thank heaven for curbside check-in.

Cleopatra, seasoned traveler.

At last it was just me and my carryon, walking and wheeling our way down the long hall of Concourse C. I found a seat at the gate. My back hurt but I had done it. I had limped to the finish line. It was January 20th, the solstice, the shortest day of the year. The long, crazy twelve months of 2013 were behind me. I took out my organic parsley, carrot, and cauliflower salad. I had piece of good, goat milk cheese I’d found when cleaning out the fridge the day before. This was lunch and I was enjoying it.

The man sitting next to me turned to me and said:

“Excuse me, but are you going to be here for awhile? Would you mind watching my bags while I go get something to eat?”

Yes, someone in a crowded airport really asked me that. As if it were the most normal thing in the world.

Meaning what? Had the harrows of this year left me so beaten down that the words “Will gladly be decoy for time bombs” were now tattooed to my forehead? Had I been steamrolled to such an extent that I was now flatter than a doormat? I had once been a confident, go-getter-Ivy-league-graduate, dancing like a Peanuts character at Christmastime. And now I was apparently just a worn-out old-maid, eating hippy vegetables, an easy mark?

After looking at him for a few beats with what I’m sure was an astounded expression on my face, I bumbled out: “That is so against the rules! That is so against the rules!” (Always articulate when it comes to setting boundaries with strangers.)


The would-be bomber resentfully picked up his bags and headed off towards the food vendors. I found myself wishing for the explosion to be far enough down the terminal that I’d survive.


But there was no explosion. Perhaps I’d prevented one from happening. Probably not but I’d like to think that just maybe I did.