My “Autogeography”

What is your favorite type of weather?

This meanders because one story leads into another. Good luck. God bless. Here’s the audio if you’d rather stream/download.

The weather I enjoy the most depends on where I’m located. In Portland, it’s the summer, because it’s not always hot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat on the banks of the Willamette on July 4, absolutely freezing, and once I even drove down from Government Camp in a blizzard (Government Camp is the small town at the base of Mt. Hood where you rent your skis or snowboard). That being said, I have a place in my heart for dark and gloomy weather. It’s just that I need it much less often. When it is dark and gloomy here, I just tell people it’s “Portlanding.”

Willamette Week makes fun of Portland all the time, and it’s so snarky, which in my book means hilarious, generally. Things like “welcome to Portland, home of the eight month November.” “Welcome to Portland, where even our black people are pasty.” Portland being cold and wet was a given, and it was really, really nice to be out of Houston for most of the hottest days there. The weather is so different you really can’t even compare it. Even the rain falls differently. In Houston and DC, we have rain showers that we call “toad stranglers.” It floods. Lightning strikes down trees. There might be a hurricane offshore, like on Galveston or South Padre. Rain comes down in tight bursts, like the clouds are holding the drops hostage and they’re struggling to get out.

In Portland, the rain is a blanket. It covers you, and for an introvert, we’re all about having a cover. If you don’t like socializing because it’s loud and noisy, that’s not its vibe. Its vibe is coffee or beer with friends in a pub or cafe with a little music to drown out things you’re not trying to hear. I think it’s because it takes so much time and energy to get out of the house in the first place. I did take my sister to “Way Bitchin’ 80’s Night” at the Fez Ballroom, but that was an exception, not the rule. It’s also not just my personality. It’s seasonal affective disorder working on everyone you meet. Everything feels heavier in the winter, from emotional problems to saving enough energy to do something after work. Most of the time, the weather didn’t clear up or get more intense. Just this constant drumbeat of sorrow because to my mind, it looked like God was going through a breakup 280 days a year.

In Houston, it’s winter. It doesn’t get cold enough for me most days, but between Christmas and New Year’s is lovely. I remember when I was in 7th grade, my friend Jess and I went swimming in Galveston. It was November. The water really wasn’t warm enough, but I assure you that the Gulf of Mexico in the winter is still warmer than the Pacific Ocean in the summer. I have never been swimming in the Pacific. I have waded into the water until I couldn’t feel my feet…. which means I lasted about 20 seconds before I was doing the full body convulsing shiver.

Sometimes I wish I’d just laid out the money for a wet suit, because I love the ocean. In fact, when I was thinking about moving to Houston back in 2013, I thought of living on Galveston first. I changed my mind when I realized the commute wasn’t worth it. Having the ocean a few blocks from my house was worthless if I was driving an hour each way to my job. I wouldn’t have time to go there. However, the setting and characters call to me occasionally, and maybe someday I’ll listen.

This is because my dad was an associate pastor at Moody Methodist, so I lived there for kindergarten and first grade. Some of my favorite childhood memories come from that church, that parsonage, and those parishioners. Plus, Lindsay had just been born, so it was my last gig as a solo act. Let me tell you about that, too. Preacher’s kids come in two kinds. I am one, Lindsay is the other. The first type totally gets into it, loves it. The other rebels and develops a wild hair. I’ll give you a hint. The first time I met my then-wife’s parents, I was wearing a t-shirt that said, “I’m with the band.” Guess who was *in* the band? I’ll give you another hint. It wasn’t me. I have always stood behind Lindsay, literally and figuratively. She’s the outgoing, bubbly one. I’m also a lot shorter than she is, and that is a blessing on its own, because I can hide behind her and glean information. She knows I’m not going to talk about what she’s working on, I just like Knowing Stuff…. especially since the demographic she serves is the entire population of SE Texas queers.

I am getting to the age where I can’t really help her much, because I’m stuck in 1990 queer, where it was a slur. I still get angry when straight people say it, and said as much when I thought it had happened on NPR. When it turned out that the woman who said it was a lesbian (Neda Ulaby), my response was “call me. For now, she is just my corporeally challenged celebrity girlfriend on the radio (you’re welcome, Dana).

Editor’s Note: That’s what Dana used to call Alison Frost of Oregon Public Broadcasting,  with whom I had two dates, but we joked about it for YEARS ON END. I have never met Neda Ulaby, but she lives in DC, so it’s not impossible that we’d run into each other. Also, one of the funniest conversations we’ve ever had is “if you weren’t married to me, would you be a Fanagan?” She said, and I quote, “Yes. Of course. But I am married to you so I don’t have to be.” I laughed so hard that tears and snot rolled down my face. Well played.

Things have changed too much for me to see everything clearly, because I cannot see them without the filter of how I was treated and why it hurt. I do love that Galveston has a pride parade, though, because I can’t think of a better day than the parade, then swimming, then drinks on the beach. Speaking of which, I also love Capital Pride, because not everything centers around the parade. There’s also an outdoor market and all kinds of activities- like a coloring tent for littles. That’s the kind of stuff I never saw as a teen, and the first time I did, I started crying.

I am an earth sign, tied to the land…. Setting matters. Context matters. Why would it make me cry to see little kids coloring at a Pride event? Because when I was a kid, I didn’t know any lesbians with children. I didn’t ever think I’d be able to have a child, because it just wasn’t done. My frame of reference was having someone everyone else called my roommate for a hundred years and pretended to notice I didn’t have a boyfriend. Setting and context are also extremely important to a novel, so being able to recreate places I’ve lived, worked, cooked, and eaten are stored in my memory. Just like Harry Windsor, I don’t remember dates, but I will “recreate a setting down to the carpet tacks” (I’m reading “Spare,” and I’m about 10 percent into it. My heart has already broken at least six times. It went from TBR to mandatory when I found out that Harry had been in Kandahar when The War Daniel was embedded with his Marines.)

I could not finish my work in progress without going to Vietnam. For me, writing about a thing has to come from experience. The book just won’t be as good if I don’t actually touch the plants, feel the grass under my feet, hopefully go fishing or something else that lends itself to writing (my idea of fishing is putting the pole on the boat and waiting for something to bite while my notebook is in my lap). I don’t know what my favorite season is in Asia. I’m just going to have to find out for myself.

In The District, it is all Spring all the time. I love the cherry blossoms, I love the Tidal Basin, and next time Lindsay visits, we’re going to have to recreate a photo of us that we don’t have anymore from 2001. We’re holding hands and pushing on the columns because we are SO INCREDIBLY STRONG we can hold up the Jefferson monument.

Any gift shop you go to in DC will have trinkets with cherry blossoms on it, whether it’s Spring or not. It is one of the things that defines the city that has nothing to do with politics. The trees were a gift from Japan.

Spring is also where it starts getting warm, but not all at once. It’s incredible sweater weather in March, perhaps a bit of April. It’s when DC is at its finest, where you can take a long walk in all that beauty without your face melting off. There are some days in the summer that DC is actually hotter than Houston, and that’s a mean feat.

I have been to New York, London, and Paris. None of them hold a candle to DC, but that’s an unpopular opinion because the people that don’t live here don’t know its beauty, and the people who live here forget to take it in. For instance, the approach into DCA at night leaves me in tears every single time. That’s because you can see The Washington Monument, the Pentagon, The Lincoln Memorial, and The Jefferson Monument all at once. It’s overwhelming…. especially because I only named about 10% of what you can pick out.

I have a favorite drive here, though I haven’t owned a car in years (with public transit and Uber, I don’t need one).

It is going from my old house (803 N. Van Dorn) into DC. You *start* at the Pentagon, and there is no such thing as Philip Johnson’s sense of restrained monumentality. We don’t do restrained monumentality here. It is full-on pageantry. Even if you drive an Econoline, your van will still feel small. I feel small when I walk downtown (shut it), but not in a way that makes me feel small inside. I am awed by everything, the same sense of excitement I felt when my parents took me to The White House when I was Leslie Lanagan, Age 8. It feels amazing that I am just as in love with it now as I was when I first landed 37 years ago. That trip is the reason I moved here in the first place.

In 2000, when Kathleen graduated from UH, she got a job at ExxonMobil and they asked her if she wanted to start in Houston or Fairfax. I’m not sure that Kat had a preference, but I sure did. 😛 We were here for Sept. 11, and that changed me forever, but it’s not why I left. If anything, it made me want to come back because there is an institutional memory here that soothes me. I am at peace with all of it now, but I didn’t just hear about it. I heard it happen. The Pentagon wasn’t far enough away from my house not to have the paintings rattle. Seriously. It was so loud that I thought there had been a construction accident across the street. I was disabused of that notion when our neighbors came over. So many people were affected with deep grief, and I didn’t lose anyone I really knew. I am not here to say that I had the same experience as someone who lost a loved one. I am here to say it was scary AF. We had fighter jets flying over our house for several days afterward, just watching federal airspace, and I was grateful even though it was very, very loud.

I only remember the date because it’s been drilled into my head so many times, but here is what I remember on my own. The sun was brilliant that day, nothing but blue skies for miles. The leaves were beginning to turn in “our front yard,” in quotes because it was a rowhouse and the lawns weren’t divided.

I was sitting in my office, chatting with my friend Jim (former boss)…. then….. BAM!

Because I thought it was a construction accident, I barely looked up. Then Jim told me to turn on the TV. He had to tell me to turn on the TV because I was home sick from work that day. Kathleen had taken me to a tapas bar for my birthday (10 Sept.), wherein I ate bad mussels and spent the night after we got home in the bathroom. I slept in, then threw up some more. When the first set of fighter jets took off, I realized how alone I was.

I see DC now and am glad that I am part of the institutional memory it holds, because that was my first time in deep grief. I didn’t lose anyone except a passing acquaintance. The loss was not personal, it was my mirror neurons going off and feeling the pain of the city, stepping into its river and taking drink after drink. The beauty still arrived that Spring, as much as I don’t think we were ready for it. Beauty and grief don’t make friends in the beginning.

Since my mother died, I have learned to love picnics in cemeteries because they’re always quiet, serene, and a great reminder that there are more people grieving than just me. Gore Vidal is buried here, and I haven’t been to pay my respects. I intend to make change by hopefully stealing some of his talent since he is not currently using it.

Because Congressional Cemetery is lovely in my favorite weather here.


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