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   hugs and handshakes in Washington State
Saturday, July 7 2012

location: southern Whidbey Island, Washington State

The plan this morning was to go to breakfast, say our goodbyes, and then ride with Brooksley and Ezra across the ferry to the mainland and on to hideous SeaTac, where we'd be renting a car of our own for further travels to the south. My social responses are all simulations learned after going to college, so I feel particularly awkward during goodbyes, particularly with men. With women, it's easy: they always hug, though some hug more enthusiastically than others (Nancy of Ray and Nancy being the least enthusiastic hugger I know). But with men, sometimes it's just a handshake, and sometimes it's an awkward handshake that turns into an even more awkward hug. I hate all the stuff; sometimes a particularly clumsy goodbye can make me cringe for days afterwards. Luckily, I only ended up saying goodbye to one person (it was a man and yes, it was a complete mess) before sneaking off with Ezra and Brooksley and waiting at their car for Gretchen (who must have skipped out on a lot of goodbyes herself because she didn't take long).
Ezra had lost his prescription glasses on the ferry ride to Whidbey, and he was entertaining the hope of somehow getting them back at the ferry's lost and found, assuming such a thing existed. Once on the ferry, Ezra went to the spot where he remembered being when the glasses were lost. But then it turned out we were on the wrong ferry as evidenced by little details that he remembered. Ezra talked to an employee who didn't know anything about any glasses or, for that matter, any lost and found. But he suggested we stop in at the ferry headquarters to see if it showed up there. When Ezra went into the office, I assumed it was a fool's errand and he wouldn't find anything, but about five minutes later he reappeared, jubilant. The glasses had been found! Evidently the Whidbey ferry does have a lost and found (I put this here specifically for people doing a Google search for Whidbey ferry lost and found).
Until he got his glasses back, Ezra had been relying on presciption sunglasses (actually, they were prescription lenses fitted loosely in almost-compatible frames from cheap pair of drugstore glasses). So I told him of my discovery, which at this point will seem like product placement but is not intended that way: I have my prescription (copied from the scrawls made by my optometrist) on file with them and can order glasses any time I want. Their cheapest pair cost something like $12 (including shipping and handling).
Brooksley and Ezra are awesome; we had a great conversation on the way to SeaTac about all manner of things, focused mainly on the tension between doing things by one's self or hiring some professional to do it instead. They live in Northampton, Mass., and have found it makes sense to hire someone to mow their grass, but that's only because they only want to do things that they don't hate doing. As for me, I don't especially enjoy plumbing when I'm actually doing it, but would I really hire a plumber to connect my solar panels to my custom circulation system? Isn't the whole point of a homebrew solar heating system the homebrew part? Come to think of it, I'm always somewhat in a state of drudge-filled misery when I'm building stuff, but the satisfactions come frequently in the form of mild elation with every successfully-completed step.
SeaTac might be a new-urbanist nightmare, but it has a certain machinelike beauty when appreciated the way it was designed to be appreciated. This was evident when Ezra and Brooksley dropped us off and said their goodbyes at the car rental facility. It's a massive structure designed like a small airport, complete with an airport-like drop-off area in front and multiple counters for the various car rental companies. We've had bad luck with all the companies that have synonyms for cheapskate in their names, so this time we went with Enterprise. (Actually, I have no idea why Gretchen picked that company; all I know is that Thrifty sucks.) Off-puttingly, I watched the woman at the Enterprise counter daub hand sanitizer on her hand and then march up to meet me in line with a handshake. (How about we just go back to hugs?) That was the personal touch, but her job was purely bureaucratic. The salesmanship, for Enterprise at least, happened down in the garage. Gretchen had finally managed to rent a compact car instead of some ugly American mid-sized gas-gobbling "upgrade," but the sharp-dressed salesman assigned to our case was trying to get us to buy an upgrade. Salesmanship, like courtship, is all about sweet little lies, though they were pretty bitter and big in this particular case. The salesman actually told us, I kid you not, that mid-sized cars get better mileage than compact cars. I don't know if that line was working on Gretchen, but it wasn't working on me. So then he tried to sell us on an upgrade to a Prius for $10 per day. That was a deal worth considering, depending on how much we intended to drive. Because I'm always a passenger when it comes to logistics, I wasn't sure of our plans, but Gretchen indicated we'd be doing a lot of driving. So, what the hell, we went for it. For Gretchen, the detail that sealed the deal was the fact that the Prius had cruise control and the compacts did not. Though he'd shown himself to be a transparent liar, our Enterprise salesman was nevertheless a likeable guy and somehow it felt good to make him happy by falling for his upsale.
I drove the first leg of our roadtrip southward, and out on I-5 we found our entertainment choices restricted to conventional FM radio, though our stereo could somehow read and interpret digital meta-data that came with the signal, and this gave us information about the songs and artists being played. For whatever reason (and this has happened on other road trips) we found ourselves listening to pop music. In the past we've listened to stations whose format was pop dance music, which is a surprisingly thick strata of culture. Today, though, we listened to station in the top ten pop format. And by top ten, I mean that they really only played about ten songs, though since they played some of those songs more than others, it seemed like they only played about six songs. Most of these featured contemporary divas singing over euro-tech dance grooves with surprisingly few (if any) interludes of rap by guest artists (which were to the mid-to-late-aughts what guitar solos were to the late 1970s). The songs included "Wide Awake" (Katy Perry's mess of "I'm so over you" song), "Scream" (Usher's overly exhibitionistic bedroom flowchart), "Somebody That I Used to Know" (a haunting and surprisingly minimalist rejection anthem), "Party Rock is in the House Tonight" (an unintentional parody of contemporary party music), "Call Me Maybe" (which dubbed "the song of the summer"). We dropped into this cultural landscape almost like aliens from another planet. We'd heard of the musicians and a few of the songs, but otherwise it was all very new. But it didn't take long before we were completely fluent in its language and customs. That's the way it is with pop music, what with all its catchy hooks and monotonous repetition. It propagates and succeeds because it is engineered to compete successfully with all the other stuff happening within the brains of humans.
Gretchen doesn't tolerate advertising from the radio and she pays close enough attention to change the station when ever it appears. But radio doesn't seem to have as much advertising as it did back in the early days of the Clear Channel monopoly. It's actually a bit surprising that radio persists in such a recognizable form given the intense competition from iPods and other MP3 devices, to say nothing of satellite radio. But there are still a lot of cars on the road without MP3 players or a means for easily attaching them.
Periodically we'd shift from listening to top ten pop radio to listening to its country music equivalent. Country pop stations have deeper play lists than top ten stations, but it still didn't take long for us to hear songs multiple times and notice patterns, such as the constant references to alcohol, which are to country music what references to "party" are to pop music. Particularly amusing was a song that measured the passage of time in beers.

Our destination was Portland, Oregon, our favorite city in the Pacific Northwest. As always, we'd be spending the night at Gilly and Allen's place near the airport. After petting an enthusiastic Gracie the dog and getting distracted multiple times, Gilly, Gretchen and I walked to the McMenamins at the Kennedy School. With temperatures in the low 90s, it was an unusually hot day in Portland, but it was a dry heat of a kind that does not exist east of the Mississippi, and it didn't seem particularly uncomfortable to me. Still, though, if we wanted to sit outdoors, it would have to be in the shade. But since there were no available shady places, we ended up in the nicely air conditioned boiler room, the bar with all the decorative plumbing pieces. Gretchen ordered tater tots, which I don't much like, so I ordered fries. The latter ended up being the flaccid kind served at fancy restaurants and there were an awful lot of them. Somehow, though, Gilly and I managed to eat almost the whole damn thing. I also drank two IPAs, both of which were unremarkable.
At a certain point the three of us walked down to Alberta and then something like twenty blocks to the Bye and Bye, our favorite vegan comfort food venue, where Allen joined us. We sat at a picnic table out in the back and I devoured a Weeping Tiger Sandwich, which features spicy tofu. Unfortunately, though, the addition of this sandwich to the nest of limp french fries in my stomach soon rendered me uncommunicatively uncomfortable. I'd acted like a dog who is unable to stop eating.
After dinner, it was perhaps a good thing that Gilly, Gretchen, and I all decided to walk back to Gilly and Allen's place. (Allen was in a truck.) Along the way, we stopped at the grilled cheese schoolbus and Salt and Straw, a fancy new icecream place continually thronged by a mob of people waiting in line. Most of this was so that Gretchen could investigate what (if any) vegan options were on offer. She was disappointed to find that there were fewer vegan options than she'd remembered there being from two years ago. And at Salt and Straw (which hadn't existed back then) there were no vegan icecreams. Gilly made the observation that perhaps the high water mark of Portland's vegan-friendly phase might have passed, perhaps because veganism was no longer such an in thing for Portland's many hipsters. Indeed, many of them had moved on to another fad: the Paleolithic Diet. Paleo is all about trying to eat as much like a cave man as possible, and this means avoiding dairy, grains, and other products of agriculture and instead eating fruits, nuts, fish, vegetables, and lots of meat, the wilder the better. Of course, since wild meat is hard to come by, most paleos end up eating conventional factory-farmed meat, which can hardly be said to resonate with whatever cave man genes survived the intense selective pressures of civilization, agriculture, and the black plague.
Before going to sleep down in the basement, I found that the tissue around of my eyes had swollen up after I'd carelessly rubbed it with a finger. Eleanor the cat, one of the few cats to whom I am allergic, still lives with Gilly and Allen, and it doesn't take much of her dander to provoke a reaction. We rooted around in Gilly's medicine cabinet and managed to find me some cold medication, which I took hoping for at least a placebo effect. Eventually my eye felt normal and thankfully my breathing wasn't affected. The sheets and pillowcases down in the basement were all nice and clean and I was able to sleep okay[REDACTED].

A photo of a flower at the Whidbey Institute that I took just before we left.

From left: Allen, Gretchen, and Gilly outside the Bye and Bye.

Gretchen being dismayed by the decreased number of vegan options at the grilled cheese bus. Two years ago vegans had been better supported, but now restaurants are catering to the Paleo fad.

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