November 19th, 2004


Well, my trip hasn't been too eventful so far. I'm sitting at a Borders in the shopping complex where the Capital Center used to be, taking advantage of Starbucks network. And I'm slowly becoming able to breathe without feeling like a lead block is on my chest. You see, my asthma acts up at my parents' house. There are molds somewhere - in the walls, probably -- that set me off like nothing else. It's funny. The asthma I'm having here in Maryland is different from the sort I experience in Tucson. And neither resembles the asthma that plagued me from time to time in California.

"Asthma" is one of those words like "cancer" that actually encompasses a wide variety of problems. Wait, don't most words function that way? Yes, I suppose they do. But we have an expectation that terms used in a specific context, such as medicine, will be more closely tied to their referents. Anyway, each form of asthma I get -- none of which are that severe, I might add -- has its own special qualities. The kind I've been suffering over the past twelve hours is my least favorite. It's hard to describe. It affects my stomach strongly. And I lose the ability to think without panicking.

I realize that the claustrophobia of being in my family home -- everyone has that experience when they return, right? -- surely makes the asthma worse than it would be in neutral location. Nevertheless, the physiological effects take precedence. I had the same problems during our last visit in 2003. Because I hadn't been back in a few years, I realized things that I had previously suppressed. This time that sensation is exponentially greater. And the more I think about my years living in that house -- 1979 to 1986 -- the more I suspect that the mold was there when we moved in. The symptoms I have now, which seem so extreme, actually match up with my memories of being a teenager. I mean, obviously there were other reasons why I was restless back then. But the sense of not being able to breathe right, the panic that made me unable to concentrate -- they could have been environmentally induced.
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Pennsylvania Dutch

As his typical for me, I'm responding to a stressful environment -- in this case the one created by the molds that are making me breathe like a ninety-year-old -- by attempting to aestheticize it. In the case of one's former home, that's hard. And it's made harder by the fact that my parents aren't given to worrying about the aesthetic appeal of their domicile. They spend lots of time thinking about culture, but not the culture of the house itself. I understand. I would be that way too, had it not been for the intervention of first Annalee and then Kim. Even now, I'm only able to direct attention to certain aspects of my home's appearance.

Anyway, I took some pictures today. I decided that the best approach would be to strive for the look of seventeenth century Dutch paintings, which often seem to focus on details as a way to avoid contemplating the whole. I took a shot of my parents in in action:

I really like the "dutchness" of their faces in this one, along with the sense that they have taken root in an interior that blends seamlessly with their interiority. The television remote is the key detail.

When I went to hang up my winter coat this morning, I discovered that the coat rack had been transformed into a rack of all trades:

Oddly, though the presence of the hacksaw suggests a compulsion to trip and prune, the front and back yards are rank with confusion.

My parents could certainly use that hacksaw in the kitchen, which remains a site of chaos, despite the wonderful food that emerges from it. On one point, though, entropy has taken a blow. The flies are grouped together neatly:

"I haven't seen flypaper in years," I told my mother. "Well it works," she replied in her best Moravian Bookstore curtness.

I spend a good deal of my time thinking about the relationship between taste and class. I agonize over the privileges I've had that were denied to people like Kim. But, visiting my parents house this time, I'm starting to think that I should leave the hook for the hacksaw. It's not like I come from landed gentry. Maybe the divide between the hill-dwelling Pennsylvania peasants I went to elementary school with and my own white-collar family was less dramatic than it felt at the time. These days, my parents house feels like the car body-littered farm of my less well-off friend Billy from the schoolbus.
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