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Portland, Ho! What’d you call me?!?!


It’s not like you haven’t heard from me . . . but i suppose you haven’t heard all the tales and tidbits. i DID just make a cross-country move with my darling husband. So let’s see what i can tell you about what it is to move from Virginia to Oregon with everything you own, a car dragging behind you, plus a landlubbing Bengal Cat to which any confinement in a moving vehicle is a personal affront to be met with vociferous fury . . .

We’ll begin with the end of days: the weekend of Saturday August 23rd was my last day of work, i waited on Joe’s family, we said goodbyes and he sold them his car. Sunday afternoon we were off to a baby shower for my dear friend Megan in Annapolis and a late-night fevered packing session on Sunday which brings us early into Monday . . .

Monday morning we were supposed to pick up our Budget Rental truck. Penske doesn’t do it that far and U-Haul was NOT an option by poor reputation and my friends’ numerous horror stories and breakdown variations on a theme so Budget had our business, begrudgingly we were to find out. Due to some unknown fuckery at the rental shop, we received a phonecall in the morning, informing us that our honkin’ monster truck (24 ft) would be available closer to noon as the current drop-off hadn’t arrived, but that they would call when it was ready. It was verging .. 2pm by the time Joe actually went there in person to experience – more fuckery. Apparently, Larry, Curly, Moe (and possibly Shemp) were not capable of doing anything by hand (filling out forms, figuring out taxes) and the whole Eastern seaboard Budget computer system was apparently mysteriously “broken.” Once it came back online, (and partway through the manual entry) they insisted Joe stay to put it all in the computer. My poor husband, fuming, but controlled did not arrive until 3:30.  Luckily we had angels waiting for us.

i don’t know what we would’ve done without Jared and Patrick helping us haul things down and load the truck. i don’t know why we thought we could’ve done it by ourselves; we would’ve had to add another whole day to our trip exhausting ourselves getting everything loaded! Of course, the late truck meant later packing, meant later loading meant later cleaning of the apartment, and we really wanted to be out early evening, get somewhere outside of the DC Beltway morning rush hour, hole up in a little motel and rest, and to then start the trek first thing in the am. Well, it wasn’t until after midnight, when we finally packed the vacuum and cleaning supplies. i gave Odin some PetCalm to ease his nerves (but it didn’t, much) while we drove over an hour (an eternity with howling feline) to Hagerstown, Maryland.

A word about the Motel 6 . . .  sketch. Okay, lots of snaky S words. Like, skeevy, scary, bars on the window where the night clerk sits, sketchity spookville. We were only here because they had a pet friendly policy, not to save on any moving expenses as they were covered by Joe’s university job. A quick survey of the area (and the big sign about NO TRUCKS) and it was clear we had to park the moving truck (24 ft + now the extra 10ft or more with my car in a flatbed tow) at the shopping mall lot across the way. We figured it was ok to do since other trucks were parked similarly.

But just to be sure, Joe asked the clerk, “Is it ok to park over there?” motioning to the direction of the trucks.

The clerk offered a nervous, and falsely reassuring answer, “yeah – a security guard patrols there every hour or so. Any room preference?”

“Where we can see the truck,” Joe said plainly.

So, Odin got settled quickly (he can bed down anywhere, he just hates MOVING in a vehicle), chowed down, did some encouraging kitty business in the newly re-located litterbox and perched himself at the highest point in the room, the tv, to survey his new domain. We pulled the scratchy, toilet paper thin bedsheets over us and commenced sleeping into morning one of our cross-country adventure.

The next morning, it was the breakfast buffet at Shoney’s which smelled like greasy, eggy-bacon heaven floating atop pancake clouds; evil and delicious but the type of meal one could not hork down shamelessly every morning without regret or consequence. Our waitress was pleasant, quick and dirty with the coffee cups and water and plodded through the standard “Hello, my name is ______, and i’ll be your server today.” There wasn’t any fresh fruit, unless you counted all the sugary canned ones for pancake toppings, but there were three types of gravy to include chipped beef and four types of potatoes – all fried.

And boy howdy it hurt my soul; there were some very unhealthy, ungainly, unhappy people milling around the breakfast bar. People shuffled up with oxygen tanks and walkers, sort of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest revisited meets Dawn Of The Dead, and honestly, forgive me for this description, but between all the medical equipment, the staggering display of obesity, and the general slow-moving malaise owing to an early morning it was not an easy square to maneuver. Conversely, the buffet was patrolled and replenished by a pasty, skinny, pock-marked, shifty-eyed, surlier than Satan, quick-handed, would be mass-murderer type, luckily armed only with a few spatulas. i hesitated to ask for anything that might come off sounding like a snooty, pain in the ass dietary concern, should Jethro James Manson, Jr. decide this was his morning to “waste ’em all.”

The bill didn’t amount to much, as we had a per diem for food in our moving expenses, so Joe left the waitress a $10 tip.

“Whoa, what’s that say?” the cash register jockey drawled, incredulously.

Joe is lovely, but his hand-writing is difficult and deeply codified, plus the pen was a little dry, so i assumed the numbers were hard to make out.

“Joe went back over the numbers in pen and told him “Ten dollars.”

“Wow! That’s a great tip.” This was the lottery to this guy.

As a waitress in fine dining where the average low end tip is a straight $20, this statement made me terribly sad, but i could see the grubby, wrinkled, single bills and piles of change emptied from pockets and cup holders, piled on dirty tables under brown coffee mugs as we walked by, looking more like several police searches than gratuities. We must’ve made, “Hello, my name is ______, and i’ll be your server today”‘s day.

long and winding road

We wound our way through Appalachia through the first of many many miles of corn on our way to Indianapolis.

What should’ve been an 8-hour drive grew into a 12-hour nitemare of three terrible realizations. One – we had one angry, frightened, inconsolable cat (no matter how much herbal tranquilizer administered) who slept for 20 minutes and howled and climbed windows, dashboard and floorboard the other 40. Two – a mysterious idiot light came on depicting a wrench and an oilcan. This to me meant “You’re fucked, Tin Man.” After one of the first tiffs my sweet husband and i ever had about how to handle this second crap-laden fact, we decided the best course was to pull over and call the Budget help line. After being jockeyed through the phone system of choices, we finally pushed enough numbers and spoke to an informed human service agent who wasn’t reading verbatim from the “How-To Talk To The Pissed And Stranded” manual. She spoke to an actual mechanic who assured us it was simply an early warning oil change interval and that we could tell the delivery place on the other end that it came on and needs the service. They even told us how to disable it, but we never did. And finally, Three – with footnotes a) & b) were realizations we made about the truck. a) it laughed at and evaporated fuel – 5 miles to the gallon. b) uphill grades any steeper than say 4%, with the pedal to the metal resulted in the hazard lights being flicked on and a maximum speed of 35mph.


After we finally arrived in Indianapolis to my sister’s place, hair matted, mood dampened, cat howling, with furrowed brow, exhausted and hungry as hostages, we came around to the idea that we had to add a day to our ambitious arrival time. This was decided over a fabulous pork dinner and several ears of corn on the cob plus two bottles of wine. We also decided (and thankfully, my sister and her husband agreed) to leave Odin to stay with them for a week for a later flight retrieval operation that my poor Joe volunteered for. It was clear that completing the rest of the trip with kitty in the cab would make for a longer, more difficult, harrowing and stressful journey – for all of us. Let’s just say that Odin is not easily calmed or sedated, by natural, herbal, homeopathic, psychological, or pharmacological means. On the two-leg (no direct flights from Indy) trip home, he even managed to surf above the double dose of chicken flavored kitty Valium and maintained a constant meow from under the seat, save for the last hour. Joe reports that he made lots of friends on the planes. When Odin did finally arrive, he was all hyped up. Apparently, diazepam, instead of having the nice calming effect, can cause a paradoxical reaction and instead make a human (or bad kitty) wildly alert and excitable. So Odin, above the normal exploratory passes that go along with an animal in new surroundings, paced, mewed, jumped from window to window and trotted from room to room with a lack of coordination and on wobbly legs until pretty much the next morning when he was able to settle in and have a good long sleep. And he’s doing fine now . . .

Odin finally naps

sunny chair

But back to the adventures of the Janda’s cross-country excursion . . .

mirror glass II

Getting fuel was always exciting. Finding diesel in Hellhole, Nebraska often required the help of my fancy new Instinct phone’s GPS Navigation, then it was determining whether we could get the moving truck under, around and out of places without jackknifing, tearing off the trailer or bringing down awnings and taking out gas pumps. EVERY stop, which was more frequent with the awesome fuel consumption, required this exercise in mathematical probability and turning radius.

The cities moved on as I downloaded the local weather. Amazing to me that i could find where we were and what was close by to eat or refuel by the help of Jenny (the name i have dubbed my cell phone’s navigational voice, as in: “Jenny Jenny, where do i turn now? 867-530 ni-eeee-ine.” and yes, Iain . . . a tip o’ the hat to you as well on the name.) Lore City, OH – Grass Lake, MI – Normal, IL – Exira, IA, Waverly, NE – Grand Island, NE. Oh, which by the way, appears to be in the center, like a bullseye dart throw at the US map. However, Grand Island is, as far as i can tell, neither “grand” nor an “island” and is not even remotely near water. Or culture. Or . . .

The waitstaff at the local Perkins gave me very confused looks when, upon having my own oolong tea, i simply requested a pot of hot water, a pitcher of milk and a cup.

“So, you want a glass of milk, like orange juice?” Lloyd asked.

“No, i want a small container, for milk instead of cream, like for coffee,” i tried to explain. He brought me a pitcher of milk normally reserved for syrup and a plastic carafe big enough for 8 cups of coffee but filled with hot water and still, sadly, no vessel to put any of my tea in. 2 out of 3 wasn’t bad i supposed. i was finally able to flag down another waitress to ask for a coffee mug since i was certain tea cups were not to be had. forget about latte mugs too in case i wanted to make a BIG cup of tea . . .

Blue Mountains
Douglas, WY – Laramie, WY . . .

In Rock Springs, Wyoming we stayed on Elk Street at the “Outlaw Inn” Best Western, ordered my first breakfast in bed and watched my first episode of “It’s Me Or The Dog.” We had traveled all nite through so much flatland (called the Great Plains for a reason, clearly – they go on plainly forever) and when we woke up, we were surprised that we found ourselves in the desert. Rocky, golden stoned climbs and scrubby green & brown foliage dotted the hillsides and ground like so many funny little clown wigs left out in the sun after the carnival left town and never came back. But here’s what surprised me. Sure, we laughed at first, because the winds picked up and there were some honest to goodness TUMBLEWEEDS moving across the road which to me, signals true desolation and nowhereness. Then the sky grew ominous, black and bruised and instead of being hot and blazing, it rained through most of our trip through the desert and on our way as we dipped barely into Utah north of Salt Lake and on into Idaho.

golden hills
Hefener, UT – Caldwell, ID . . .

And can i just say here, forgive me if you grew up in, lived or currently live in Idaho, because, i know the northern part is beautiful, but damn. Boise proper, from the road and some of the rare farms and outlying suburbs hurt a little to look at. It was hard for me to imagine where you would live, where you would work, how far you had to drive, the manner and means by which you’d survive. Strange domiciles huddled like hungry masses, bumped up against and thrown together in a manner almost suburban, but more like third world dilapidated houses of clap-trap metal sheds and sheets, some barely wooden, functional farmlike lean-tos. Meant for animals. Weathervanes on top seemed an unnecessary after thought. A spritely windchime tinkling and floating off a broken fence made me sad. i hesitate to say soul-crushing, but it did approach that. Once, after a batch of mean road food, we rolled down the windows to umm . . .  get some fresh air, and were assaulted by an even worse smell. and here’s where tasting food and wine and trying to disseminate spices, essences, flavors and smells comes in, though i hope to never come across any food or beverage of the sort. i can only describe the smell in Idaho as a dead squirrel/rodent rolled in mocha and put on a pyre of leaves. It had a pungent, smoky, mocha, sweet, rotting meat, dead, acrid, burnt, dry smell that was enough to make us prefer our own flatulence. damn.

Mount Hood from the road

Crossing over into Oregon, we stayed in Baker City at the Oregon Trail Motel & Restaurant to prepare for the last leg of our journey into Portland. What a funny, little old, almost stagecoach town. The room was cheap, and included free breakfast the next morning, which was delightful and a good thing, because our first dinner in Oregon, was when we arrived there near closing time to have a most disappointing steak dinner. flavorless, tough, square shaped strip steak (definitely frozen and hauled in), grey-tinged green beans, sad and soggy (definitely canned and not sautéed), and a dusty baked potato (the best part, sadly) which could’ve benefitted from a good wash and less time in foil, so it was easier to strip it out to eat. we probably should’ve had to the fried chicken dinner special that the kooky local ordered when he bellied up to the counter, because he ordered a second plate. but then again, “special” to me in the far restaurant outreaches does not mean “fresh today, on the mind of the chef,” it means, “get this scary shit out of the kitchen before it violates health code.”

Speaking of health code . . . the not so sanitary, no sneeze-guard, precursory salad bar on a small wheeled cart had a threatening sign tacked to it about allowing only one visit with no sharing and one plate per person limit. This plate, by the way, had a 4in diameter, enough to hold a slice of bread with some overhang. and the usual sad green fare of anemic looking iceberg lettuce, limp, shredded carrots, sulfurous purple cabbage, some unidentifiable, unnaturally colored, jiggling gelatinous something, creamy thick dressings, crushed into sawdust croutons, and luckily for me, some watermelon. a rare one-off fruit treat with more crunch, water, and possibly more nutrients than the iceberg lettuce.

i know – i am spoiled. of course, i did not expect to pass through the middle of the heartland, the dairyland, the plains, the land of plenty and to have a diverse and delicate gourmet experience, but being that close to corn, vegetables, grains and cows, i had my standards set high enough that i might actually receive something on a plate that tasted farm raised and had enough color to shine through the blue pallored spectrum of fluorescent lighting that haunts every diner. i realize, i may come off as a food snob, but more i find myself grateful. it occurs to me how fortunate i am to work in an industry and now live in a city and state where culinary excellence, even in the simplest of places, hinges on fresh, whole, organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable food sources. you can taste the difference, people. tomatoes that aren’t pale pink, mealy and flavorless. Strawberries that although smaller than the grocery bought flats, stain the fingers and taste sweet and heavenly. i made a soup last week with these huge gnarly carrots, just pulled from the ground, bundled with the tops on and even after boiling were the most amazing flavorful carrots i’ve ever eaten.

So on the tip of food et al, we’ve been hitting the wine bars, the sake bars, the breweries, the Saturday Farmer’s Market, dinner here and there and lots cooking at home. a few weeks back, my friend Tiffany and i went to the Portland Classical Chinese Garden where we had a traditional tea and ate a red bean mooncake to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Pond Lily

Joe and i have already met new people and are definitely getting some socializing done. on one such event, i even canned peaches and tomatoes w/ garlic and green peppers for sauces. first months out here out here and were discovering how to compost, rethinking everything i throw away, recycling the hell out of EVERYTHING i touch, and putting food into Ball jars for the winter! holy granola! stop me if i cease wearing deodorant, let my hair dread, get a nose or lip piercing, go on road trips to support jam bands and start practicing hacky sack in my backyard, k?

Columbia Gorge

One of the prettiest parts of the trip – The Columbia Gorge . . .

i’m the impatient type. i’m the girl who wants to feel established and settled the minute i set foot in a new situation. i crave quick learning and acclimation and seem to give myself a bit of hell if i don’t have all my systems, rituals and routines in place. Joe’s sister, Laura reminded us (me, really, who needs the patience and the temperance) that we are setting up a HOME, not just a house or living space, so i should just ease into it without spazzing out too much. but yes, the “house” is mostly setup and the “home” bit is starting to warm in me. we have been sleeping fitfully in a new king-sized bed, (Odin’s all about it too!) the weather has been stellar to mild, with yes, some rain here and there though we’ve apparently entered the rainy season. But Indian Summer came and went in full-swing (it was in the 90’s a few days in the first weeks of arrival and not a drop of rain) and i am certainly enjoying my little garden, deck space, cool mornings, quiet breakfasts and tea in a sunny kitchen, dinners & wine with my Joe and friends. it’s all been quite good. And i know it’s going to be at least a year until all things truly settle, i have a solid base of friends, a job i enjoy and can get all the way around socially and physically without getting lost.

Mount Hood

As for our immediate locale – there’s a little coffee house nearby and as we walk down to it, we get a clear view of Mt. Hood, and off to the left, Mt. St. Helens (which i read are two “active” stratovolcanos, kind of “exciting”). there are pear trees along the walk, overflowing and dropping in the grass – ah, the spoils. In our yard, we have roses lining the wooden fence, blueberries, raspberries, tomatoes, fennel, ferns, lavender, rosemary, sage, hydrangea and little bursts of wild flowers. In fact, this year i am putting in Spring bulbs and next year, i think i will revive the tomatoes, put in cucumbers and plant squash.

i put out hummingbird feeders and they’ve come and i put out a regular seed feeder and the loudass squawking Scrub and Stellar Jays (plus some sweet Chickadees) have depleted it twice. the squirrels are plentiful – one (or a party of several) gnawed through our Comcast dropline to the house, so we had to have our internets fixed the first few days here. they also chase and skitter across the length of our roof top and you can hear the entire scrabbling pursuit from room to room. This drives Odin wild! Bad little tree rats!

Joe got his haircut at this little local barbershop on the corner by this big brawny tough dude named Justice who had two teensy-weensy grey kittens scurrying about that his friend dumped on him and now he has seemingly been forced to adopt. Their names are Guns & Roses. seriously. And, as recent pictures depict, i also whacked my hair off. it’s a bit curly and untame unless i brush it down some and straighten it, but i like the shortness. Hair clips are my friends.

The fine people i worked with in Virginia bought Joe and i a most original going away gift. A hot air balloon ride over Yamhill wine country which ends in a catered hot, champagne/mimosa brunch! We’re going to try to fit that in while the weather holds . . . but, there is always Spring and Summer next year.

Joe started work on September 15th, and me, after hitting craigslist like a whore, i’ve had a few bites and started a job that’s going to require endurance of some growing pains, but i won’t bore you with those details here. i’m not one to talk shop and air dirty laundry of how i trade time for money; it’s one of those questions i’ve always hated and dislike answering. “So – what do you do?” Of course, i grew a bit bored being a lady of leisure but there are some things i loved about it, like seeing my husband during normal evening hours for dinner in or out and watching or reading things together. Life moves slower here, hours go slower. Life is more leisurely it seems, and it’s not just lack of full-on social or work obligations either, it seems to be an engrained mindset.

On September 23rd, Joe and i celebrated our 1st wedding anniversary. We had a low key day of salad, pizza and beer, some board games with some rosé champagne, some tv time, some private time, and some blissful sleep. The beer and first bottle of bubbly did us in, so we didn’t get to some really nice champagne gifted to us last year, but there was always lunch the next day . . . and me, i never need a celebratory excuse to crack the bubbly.

Well, two things i am looking forward to out here – Halloween and voting. Both bring a certain level of ghoulish fright and giddy excitement. It’s safe to say that by lawn and houses alone, it appears that Oregon is largely an Obamanation. (heh!) Voter registration was made pretty easy for us: they got me in front of an organic market out here, and Joe at the Saturday Farmer’s market. It was convenient and fast, done by the last four of my SS (since i don’t have an OR license yet) and the voter’s card arrived days later. Apparently, we send all of our ballots in by mail here, which surprised me. i was really hoping to go into a secret squirrel booth for my first voting experience. But hey – no nervousness about machines to manipulate and no hanging chads. i wonder if it’s a scantron?

And if you need to go back a few lines, yes . . . that’s right. MY FIRST. in all my 36 years i have never been registered to vote. Never cared for the process, and living near DC never endeared me to the constant conversation, the dogged preoccupation nor the convocation. (Apologies to my friends for whom it is an occupation.) But i am doing it this year. i am fortunate to survive and do well in as they say, “times like these,” and it occurs to me that being politically active when it counts is by extension, a survival tactic to hold onto all the ideals in life that brought Joe and i out here in the first place.

Oregon is already proving itself as some manner of heaven and a lifestyle i can love.

So come visit us! We have a nice guest room in the basement, right next to the wine cellar.


Home? for the Holidays . . .

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“There are homeless people everywhere.
This homeless guy asked me for money the other day.
I was about to give it to him and then I thought
he was going to use it on drugs or alcohol.
And then I thought, that’s what I’m going to use it on!
Why am I judging this poor bastard?”

Greg Geraldo

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The above quote comes from New York comic Greg Geraldo (a regular on the David Letterman & Conan O’Brien shows) as featured in the ‘Rhythm‘n’Speak’ song called Underwear Goes Inside The Pants by Lazyboy.

With that being said – this journal is not what you think it’s about. I don’t want to wreck your Holiday Spirit, but I want to share something I recently experienced. i have to apologize in advance for NOT discussing tinsel laden trees, twinkling lights, and hot cocoa by warm hearths. That’s not the home for the holidays I mean. I am talking about the concept of “home” as a term of reversal – as in when you don’t go over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house, but when you go to the nursing home where grandma now lives.

Also – if you get through this LONG journal, you are truly a friend who understands the necessity of my having written it.

We are in an America where an ever-increasing aging population is going to put an enormous stress on health care systems, care facilities, and eventually, the major retirement system, social security. For one of my recent projects in my Psychology of Adulthood and Aging course, my task was to visit the dreaded “nursing home” for a “reality experience.” It was a humbling journey and truly got me to thinking about how we will live as older adults, what we will call home, and especially, being the maker of homes, how women live.

Just as there is a “feminization” in poverty rates, meaning that women command lower salaries in the workforce and are more likely to be single parents with full custody, care and financial responsibility, there is a feminization in aging populations due to lower mortality rates among women. The sex ratio leaves a lot of women as widows, less likely to remarry, living below the poverty line and in many cases, in subsidized, institutionalized or hospitalized (assisted) housing and without benefit of spousal support.

My mission/assignment was to visit a nursing home and spend an hour with a resident. I was not to grill them with questions or conduct any investigative reporting, but more read to them, make pleasant conversation, push a wheelchair – whatever was required. Just visit someone for an hour of volunteer work.

I should begin this by stating that I had the opportunity and benefit of visiting two different care facilities, whose names I will not dislose. I did this primarily for comparison and easy locale. Also to be frank – the first place I visited was so utterly dismal and desperate for any volunteer work, I think they misunderstood my mission and asked me to come back the following day to help run a game of BINGO.

For the reader’s benefit I will refer to the first facility as ANRC and the second as SSLA.

The ANRC is located in a small neighborhood very near to where I work on the border of nice housing where they are trying to gentrify the area butted up against a straight-up ghetto of projects. I stopped there first around 5pm, as it was closest and I was always curious about the ghosts I would often see breezing past the windows. It would be kind to say that the summation of my visit bordered upon the depressingly surreal. At first glance, I felt very much like I just walked into a step-down intensive care unit in an understaffed hospital.

The woman who greeted me at the front desk, while polite, was a bit unkempt, slightly unprofessional, and well – this is no direct call on her character, but she was missing quite a few teeth. I explained to her what I was there for and she lead me through a grim sitting area where one man sat in a wheelchair. He reached out to me and mumbled a garbled greeting like “hello.” It was clear I was a new face he’d not seen before and he was looking for some kind attention from a new stranger. I stopped, smiled and said hello to him. I then went into a relatively sizeable room where a majority of the people seemed wheelchair bound, or mostly immobile. Some sat dazed, others talked quietly, a few were singing along with a particularly creepy rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” as being played over the speakers. It was dim and dreary, and smelled acutely of urine. An old wooden hutch housed a TV, squawking static, competing with the singing. Honestly – the film “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is an immediate comparison.

I was introduced to two women and I re-explained myself and my purpose to them. They were just re-organizing a small office: the doorway stood blocked with boxes, towering papers, and what looked like art supplies and activities. The equivalent of Rainy Day supplies for a school day’s indoor recess. They seemed to hear no other word except “volunteer” and the younger of the two explained she had just started two days ago. They both rifled through some folders and newly compiled binders for a Volunteer Form for me, asking each other, near the verge of argument what one or the other did with the said form. All of this, I felt was unnecessary considering the scope of my visit. One hour. Just to talk to someone who could use the company.

I sat down at what functioned as a table with one of the residents and filled out the form. The card table rocked on its legs and the small, crumpled man sitting with me, hunched over, perched like a bird, never looked over at me once. To my left was another man, slumped in a chair, his clothes disheveled, and to be blunt, his pants were undone at the button and half unzipped. Only his eyes moved. He also did not seem quite there, though he smiled at me when I looked over, and also muttered something incomprehensible followed by a light chuckle.

Across from me two women sat with coffee cups. Each of them had one hand on their cups and their free hands held each other in prayer, the end of which I overheard. “And I thank you Jesus, for my friend here and for my life.” Her friend prodded, “and don’t forget the coffee.” “Oh yeah – and for the coffee, Jesus.” The first woman added.

In the middle of me filling out this form, the toothless woman wandered into the room, thumbed some change into a vending machine, took her treat from the dump bin and trotted back to the desk. A sad tinsel tree leaned against this vending machine for support. She made no eye contact with anyone in the room; there were more 20 people sitting there. She made no motion to help anyone, to move someone or attend to them. They were all furniture to her. A room full of stinking chairs. Leaning like propped up tinsel trees, with worn out bases and broken strands of lights.

I returned the form to the two women mired in the office space, so mired in their own self-appointed self-important bureaucracy; they too failed to help anyone. Deciding where things would be kept was more important than keeping the people kept after in the next room. They practically looked hungry to see a new person there – they would’ve sopped me up like gravy on a dry biscuit. They begged me to come back the following evening to help run a game of BINGO. I knew I would not be speaking to anyone, but perhaps, they would put me on crowd control. I am sad to report, I never returned.

From there I went to the SSLA. It was on a main road, newly developed and shielded by a surrounding wooded lot. This place was worlds away from the ANRC. It is close to a large Medical complex, a shopping mall, the state capital, Annapolis, which is a beautiful tourist site, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The facility is more or less a monstrous house that resembles a Southern Victorian estate. A circle parkway with an awning, brass trimming on doors and archways, a porch where residents were sitting enjoying the cool, foggy night after a light rain.

It looked like a grand hotel: there was a TV room to my right with a fireplace and fish tank, cozy chairs, tables and ottomans. To my left, a curved bar area stood covered in balloons and both Christmas and Hanukkah decorations that led into a beautiful dining area. In the foyer was a large winding staircase with all the walls lined with fine art, and at the base of that, an attractive, young woman sat behind a large cherry desk, drawing holly leaves in dry-erase markers for an announcement board. Her name tag read “concierge.” The rooms where residents live are called “suites.” Behind her was a large white cage with the door open upon which sat an African Grey Parrot with red tail feathers. The bird wolf-whistled and said “welcome to sunrise.” I couldn’t have made this shit up if I tried!

She explained that the residents were dining and they usually finish up at 6:30. I told her I would return at 6:45 to sit with someone for a visit.

When I returned she introduced me to Barbara Moore, who never revealed her age and instead offered, “I am an old woman, but don’t tell anyone.” I sat down with Barbara and a man next to the fireplace. The man, in a stroke of gallantry, told her to put her feet up, hurriedly clearing off some newspapers and magazines off a large, round ottoman in the center of us. Barbara shot me a very funny glance that seemed to say, “chivalry is not dead, but it sure acts silly.” He stayed quiet while Barbara and I “made friendly conversation,” as she put it. She was funny and sarcastic, but also, spoke in a way that sounded like she was reading directly from a book of platitudes, Chicken Soup for the Soul flavored recipes for living.

Barbara had just arrived there as of two weeks prior. “Two weeks on Monday,” she told me, and she sounded a little pained, as if she’d been keeping close track of it, a bit like a prison sentence, marking black lines in rows of five on a wall and much less like a new move or vacation time. She revealed several things about her life and arrival there. “They thought I would feel alone in the house and wanted me to be cared for more.” Her daughter and her daughter’s husband had suggested she give this “assisted living” a try. While I didn’t pry as to the details or the time frame, Barbara had recently lost her husband and retired – both of which happened simultaneously as he was a lawyer and she worked for him at his firm. She laughed and said she kept her maiden name, which allowed her to be privy to all the gossip in the office, including the good (or bad) things said about her husband.

While we sat and talked a nurse came by and helped another resident in the room take some medication and monitor her blood sugar. Current new events on the war in Iraq were running on the TV. This prompted a discussion on how fast life moves now and where our families were from. I discovered both of our relatives hailed from Pennsylvania and had similar occupations. She said that her house hadn’t been sold but that her daughter was caring for it and had it been mostly shut-up. It is in a place called Sherwood Forest – a wooded, gated, affluent community near Annapolis where all the houses are brown and green to match the deeply wooded area and I assume, to keep an attractive, uniformed appearance.

Barbara was very kind; we laughed and she warmed to me as our conversation went along. There was a bit of an underlying tough side to her. I asked about the food and what she had for dinner and she said, “oh, the usual fare,” and waved her hand. When I pressed with, “what does the usual fare consist of?” She rolled her eyes and made a slightly disgusted face. We both laughed. She said she was always one to speak her mind and that it was important to her to tell it like it is. She conceded that even though it had only been two weeks, she was giving it all shot and was hesitant to make any quick-snap judgments. “They mostly leave you alone here, and you don’t have to make friends or get involved in things if you don’t want to, but it’s a nice place.”

Barbara mentioned that she has three grandchildren who are “all grown, like you,” she said. Then she asked me for the first time what I did and why was I there. I explained all of this to her and she delivered me a kind compliment. “You’re a very intelligent girl, you’ll do just fine, just keep your nose pointed.” She talked about her own mother and some of the things she used to tell her that enabled her to keep her nose pointed, smiling reflectively for a moment. The conversation flowed naturally and ended at the right pause where we shook hands warmly in parting as we wished each other well. “It will all work out the way it’s supposed to,” she said. And we both agreed that was the case for each other.

On the way out the door I talked to the concierge a bit who explained some of the finer points when I asked her about resident care. She pointed in the direction of other areas where Alzheimer’s patients and those residents requiring more assistance with daily living stayed. She said the parrot was donated from a resident who had lived there. And she frowned, so as to indicate the resident no longer LIVED there. They avoid death terms in places like these. You go here to live in dignity, not to die.

There were also residents who owned dogs and cats. It was refreshing to learn of so many ways that enable residents to feel more autonomous as well as help them to establish a sense of home that includes more of their personal effects and animal companions. I always imagined terrible little rooms with chintz and ratty bed sheets and tinfoil TV antennas and maybe a picture of a grandchild or deceased spouse on a small night table.

From these two places, the ANRC and the SSLA, I was able to see a full spectrum in capability and available care. Clearly, it is difficult to draw lines as there are major differences between a poorly funded, understaffed facility serving a lower socio-economic bracket and people with profound needs and a well-developed assisted living community geared towards a more functional adult with service and amenities and actual nursing care all of which is most likely planned and certainly paid for.

The SSLA boasts an atmosphere that “preserve(s) each resident’s dignity, encourages independence and best enables freedom of choice.” No matter what level of care our loved ones are able to acquire themselves or through family, the standard should focus primarily on kindness, appropriate medical attention, and dignity. How else can anything ever come close to being home?

So strange to imagine not having a place to that is strictly one’s own. So sad to imagine leaving a building where all of your memories, dreams, moments, life, death, lovemaking, food smells, laughter, tears – everything that is you is impressed into the walls, reverberating in the foundation, seeping into all the rooms like constant sigh of breath.

Some of us spend all this time amassing (or blowing) fortunes on a lifestyle. We even smash the words LIFE and STYLE together so that we forget to accomplish both. We grow into our 30s and 40s still using words like “roommate,” “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” squandering our time and love on people we don’t end up with in any meaningful way, investing our energy into fair weather friends who sap our resources and trust, and cramming our belongings into a series of apartments we hate: too small to erect a tree, toss a string of lights over an awning, or run garland up a stairwell, too busy to even think about it anyway. We forget to make home every day so that it is even more so when it becomes holiday.

I’ve mostly been with the same man, (with some interruptions) over the last seven years. I don’t know that we’ll be married. I don’t know that we want to be. Children? I barely survive caring for cats! But his parents built a house that we designed and helped with. Their house is on the same property and so we are all kept close. Neighbors. They retired and we assumed their mortgage to pay them back for taking care of us while we built. They still take care of us and we care for them. His mother tells me “we did it for selfish reasons, too.” They don’t want to end up in a care facility. A nursing home. An old folks’ home. A home that is NOT a home.

We could all do better by sticking together, and investing in each other and the places where we probably, spend the other half of our time that does not consist of our trying to escape an imagined boredom or the time spent away earning the money to pay for it all. Perhaps if we were turtles, carrying our homes on our backs, always with us for warmth, sleep, protection we would better understand the necessary burden of having a place that you would find yourself naked and vulnerable without.

We should have an obvious affection for the word home whether we mean a postal code, a childhood residence, a neighborhood, a wooded sanctuary, a far away country. Home is where your shit is. Home is where you come from. Home is where you hang your hat. Home is a place where when you go there they have to take you in. A home is not a place, it is people. A good home must be made, not bought. Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. Home is where you’ll go when you die. Home is where the heart is.