22 December 2011

comfort in the dark {a poem}

Winter begins
not with a blizzard or a flurry
but with darkness and
temperatures below freezing.

It's the solstice,
the very word speaking of
light and dark
and how our lives intertwine with both.

On this, the longest night of the year,
my kitchen smells of
sauteed mushrooms and onions
and of red wine—a kind of holy trinity
of comfort in aroma.

Standing over the white stove,
I stir the risotto, my face flush
in the steam that pirouettes from the
cooking rice.

Out my window, it is cold and it is dark,
but I do not notice.

Instead, I notice how risotto
all of a sudden
becomes creamy
as it drinks in the wine.

I notice how risotto
is about both patience
and action.

We long to categorize:
light versus dark
good versus bad
black versus white

But more often
we live in a messy blend
of looking for the light in the dark

of stirring the pot and waiting
for the risotto to transform.

That moment will come.

It always does.

19 December 2011

choose your own adventure {kind of}

In a fit of nostalgia, I pulled out an old writing journal over the weekend.

This one was from the creative writing class I took my senior year of college, and as I read through it, I through two things:
  • I wish I could go back to college. Life was so simple back then. {Name the musical I'm quoting!}
  • I was overflowing with stories to be told back when I was 22. Not that I've stopped telling stories now {I'm not sure how this blog would exist if I didn't have stories to tell...}, but I mean more the fiction kind of stories. In this class, we were challenged and encouraged to write way beyond our comfort levels, and so I had to do fiction, even if I didn't think I had stories and characters to share.

    That, by the way, is mostly why I wish I could go back to college: okay, partly it's because I want to be able to wander into a cafeteria and have a plethora of choices for food that I didn't have to make.

    But I also want to go back to college for that daily challenge thing. For that thing where you have to stretch your mind to do chemistry and analyze a modern poem and write a well-researched paper on who the best president of the post-World War II era has been—all in one week.

    And to be in a writing class where you're told: come up with 15 different ways to start a story. Now. Yes, for that challenge, I wish I could go back to college.

    {Here is where someone will insert that if I really wanted that challenge, I could take classes or do a self-study or something. But let's all just own up to this fact: there is nothing like having your only job be attending class and learning.}

Speaking of 15 different ways to start a story, I came across a list like that in my writing journal. And in a silly little effort to feel like I'm in college again, I'm going give myself an assignment.

{Actually, for this to really feel like college, it would help if a professor/teacher gave me the assignment. So if any of you fit the bill, please comment and assign me this. Ooh, and maybe create a syllabus for me.}

Assignment: Choose one of the following opening lines and finish the story.

Stipulation: I'm going to let all of you, dear readers, vote. Please take a glance at the list below and then let me know which story you'd most like me to finish. Voting closes Wednesday, December 21, at 5pm CST. {Doesn't that sound so official? Maybe I should have poll workers, too.}

Deadline: I'll do this over Christmas break. Okay, I also wish I could go back to college because I still got a Christmas break back then. Now, I get one federally-mandated day and any vacation days I want to save up for Christmas. But in any event, I'll work on this when I'm not at work.

Which of These Opening Lines Should Become a Full Story?

{aka, the time Kamiah pretended to still be in college}
  1. She woke up, looked out the window at the snow, and thought, 'Who said it could snow today?'
  2. She looked at the map, then at the street signs, then at the map again before she started crying in frustration because everything was written in a squiggle of Arabic.
  3. Holidays were a treacherous time for the family, and this one was no exception—it was, in fact, more of a shining example.
  4. When the sun got too hot for his dreams, he opened his eyes and realized that he didn't know why he was in a field of fall grass.
  5. The little girls splashed in the pool, not knowing what had almost happened yesterday.
  6. I stared at my computer screen and pretended to type so that I'd fool my boss, but in my mind, I was already in Venice on a gondola with a man who looked like Cary Grant and Tom Hank mixed together.
  7. She thought about how everyone had said, "Don't worry, it'll be okay," when they were obviously ignoring the fact that nothing is ever okay and that worrying is how she remembers that.
  8. Running away is too hard when your tires are flat on your pink Huffy bike and you're still six years away from even thinking about which pedal is for the gas.
  9. The Midwest, unlike some people think, is not the most boring part of America. And I could prove it.
  10. Her face always looked like nothing important was happening behind it, which is how I knew that she was a people watcher, too.
  11. The fight last night had been over the dishwasher and bowling, but both of them had a suspicion that there was more to it than Joy and strikes.
  12. It was only in small, orderly spaces that she felt comfortable enough to relax, which is why she often had to escape into phone booths. There were two problems with this one: it had graffiti everywhere, and someone was already in there.
  13. I had laughed at his jokes, even though I hadn't understood what he meant and had thought that maybe he was mocking me.
  14. I didn't like Halloween, but I didn't tell my friends that. They were just starting to think I was cool.
  15. I hated that I was always the one who had to leave and that I was never the one to cry.

Happy voting! All you need to do is leave a comment with the number of the opening line you'd like to see a full story for.

{Or, you know, you don't even have to think of this in terms of what you'd like to see: if you want to make me write a really, really hard story and you think one of those opening lines will be harder than the others, you can vote for that. That seems a little mean to me, but you can do whatever you want, just so long as you vote.}

16 December 2011

a word from compline

I do so love words, which may be part of the reason I resonate so deeply with liturgy. When you don't know what else to say to God, it is a comfort to be able to turn to these words that people have been praying for hundreds of years.

And there is something to the communal voice, to saying the same thing as everyone around you.

Some mumble, some enunciate, some whisper.

But there are all the voices around you, and you can feel the words swelling and building. I have more to say about the liturgy, but right now, words are feeling a bit inadequate and all I want to say is: At my small group the other night—after we ate Christmas cookies and shared Christmas stories—we did compline, which is an evening prayer service.

It's a hushed service that makes you think of wearing footie pajamas and having hot milk before bed. You half-expect the children's prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep" to be in there, complete with that line about "if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."

{I used to prayer that every night, and I always tacked on: "God bless Mommy, Daddy, and the whole wide world. Amen." Didn't see the need to list my sister and brothers by name; they were covered by the whole wide world comment, of course.}

After doing compline, I always want to crawl directly into bed, which I couldn't do the other night because I was not at my own home and that would be awkward.

This prayer especially stuck with me during Tuesday night's compline, and I wanted to share them with you {along with, apparently, a blabbering-on about liturgy and footie pajamas}:
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

15 December 2011

re-arranging {part II}

You may want to take a glance at Part I before you get into this.


The MUST DO list has just a few things on it, and that's the way it should be. Instead of feeling that everything is dependent on today, the MUST DO list shows me that no, I don't have to a superwoman. I don't have to be one because that's impossible—

this mix of

Hillary Rodham Clinton {sharp and powerful}
Julia Child {because if you have to eat, it may as well be French}
Martha Stewart {perfectly, plastically Stepford she may seem, the woman really knows about presentation}
and several characters played by Amy Adams {girl-next-door prettiness with some quirky chipperness thrown in}

I just need to be me and accept that whatever happens in a day is all right.

On the Sunday of my room re-arranging, my MUST DO list had on it:
  • choose cookie recipe for Tuesday night's cookie exchange
  • go to grocery store {for cookie stuff and general food}
  • run {outside! It's 40 degrees in December!}
  • winterize kitchen window {because it won't always be 40 degrees!}

The NICE TO DO list is, of course, much longer. It's the bonus list, the icing list. Here are things that it would feel good to get done, but if I don't get to them, they will keep.

Sunday's was:
  • order new swimsuit
  • go to Home Depot {new lightbulbs}: wander around bathroom section, thinking lovely re-do thoughts
  • start birthday thank you cards
  • cut out fabric for kitchen door project
  • email catch-up

I know that it's all just words and trickery, this MUST versus NICE; I know that my to-do lists are just as leggy as before, but since I've added these titles, the lists look more manageable, and they're less guilt-inducing.

I even re-arrange them: if, halfway through the day, I realize that something I thought was essential in the pre-dawn darkness {when the world does indeed look different} isn't, in fact, all that essential in the bright afternoon sun, I move it from the MUST to the NICE list.

This, too, is trickery, a sleight of hand as if I were the Magician of Productivity. It's the listmaking equivalent of moving furniture to make your room feel new and maybe even a little bigger.

Nothing has changed but the placement of an armchair and a lamp, but you feel like you can breathe more easily in there. You feel more like you want to curl up in that armchair and write things that would make people say, "You sound like a modern-day Jane Austen."

There is an incredible, calming freedom in doing three or four things well and completely, instead of trying to muddle through 29 things.

I'm slowly learning this lesson—and attempting to keep myself from putting on my MUST DO list:
  • Learn, for once and for all, how you can't do everything and be everything to everyone every day. Learn how to give yourself a break.

That's just not a to-do list sort of item. You can't check it off in one day.

But you know what you can do? You can find an arrangement that works for you in whatever moment you find yourself in. You can figure out what is best for you so that you can thrive and enjoy where you are, instead of feeling like you're simply checking off another item on your never-done list.

Right now, it's most helpful for me to focus on doing a few tasks well. Right now, I need my MUST versus NICE to help me, in bold caps, prioritize.

But there will come a time when this arrangement—as well as it is working now—simply won't work as well. I know this. And when that time comes, I'll do a little re-arranging to open up my life again.


Re-arranging my living room was not on my MUST DO or even NICE TO DO list on that Sunday.

But I'd already finished everything I knew I had to get done that day. The Christmas tree was lit, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was on, and I was on a chair changing a lightbulb, feeling so accomplished and energetic.

After months of feeling that my life was closing in on me with obligations, I was finally in a position to look around and see the possibilities.

And so I moved the armchair.

14 December 2011

christmas stories: go buy this book now

Last night, I went to a Christmas cookie exchange where we read our favorite Christmas stories. I brought the Tomie dePaola-illustrated version of Miracle on 34th Street, and I read aloud the part where little Susan Walker overhears Kris Kringle singing a Dutch Christmas song with a little girl at Macy's.

I always liked that part because—well, of course it's charming and touching and makes you want to believe that he really is Santa Claus—but I always liked it because when Susan is telling her mother about it, astonishment in her voice that this man could speak Dutch, her mother {her ever-practical mother who doesn't want her believing in fairy tales and Santa and other nonsense} says, "Well, Susan, I speak French. That doesn't make me Joan of Arc!"

It's possible that I learned French so that I could one day say that to someone. "I speak French; that doesn't make me Joan of Arc!" I'm not sure when this would be appropriate, so I have yet to use it.

Someone else read the Pearl S. Buck story Christmas Day in the Morning. Have you read that? I'd never heard it until last night, and I almost cried.

And since I so rarely cry, and certainly not in public, that is saying something. Seriously. Go read it right now. Go buy it from Amazon immediately: here's a link. The story, written in that quiet Pearl S. Buck fashion, makes you feel comforted and wistful, all at the same time.

As we approach the shortest day of the year—this time when the world goes into hibernation and we start to cling to any light we see in the darkness—this story fits perfectly with what I've always thought of as the true spirit of Christmas.

It's not in the bright Christmas tunes that start playing in October, those bouncy tunes in the key of Happy Major.

It's not in the wrapping or the bows or in the tables heavy-laden with food.

{I'll stop there before I start to quote The Grinch.}

To me, a truer spirit of Christmas is in that darkness.

In small moments of warmth.

In realizing how much love you have surrounding you, close and tight, in the darkness.

There's a touch of the melancholy in this view of Christmas, I know, which is probably why I'm drawn to those Christmas songs that pull out the minor sadness: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," for example.

Christmas Day in the Morning is the kind of story you should read when you're starting to feel overwhelmed by that key of Happy Major this time of year. You should have it around for moments when you're not sure you like shopping or your family or even sugar cookies.

When those moments come—and they usually do, these moments when you despair—you can read this story to remember that Christmas is about hope in the darkness.

No, seriously, go buy the book now. Or check it out from the library. However, you want to get this book, just go.

Read it and cry {or almost cry, as the case may be. I don't know your emotional state or how you feel about crying}.

13 December 2011

re-arranging {part I}

It all started because I needed to change a lightbulb. Up on a chair in my living room, I looked around and wondered.

What if I moved the bookshelf there? What if I moved those chairs? And aha, that would expose the vent that's been hiding {surely another reason it's always slightly chilled in my apartment in the winter, beyond that the heat is programmed to drop to 58 degrees at night and beyond that I live in the Midwest, land of the frozen ice sheet}.

This re-arranging was not at all on my to-do list.


I've been making these MUST DO and NICE TO DO lists for my free weeknights and for the more unstructured weekends. The concept is straightforward: prioritize. What is actually required today?

I have a tendency, when given a chunk of free time, to make lists as long as my legs, not that I have long legs but when it comes to listmaking, your finger is probably a better gauge, I've leaned.

In my leg lists, the concept of time never applied, so perhaps the first item on them should've been:
  • invent Star Trek-inspired machine to stop time {consider suspended animation principles from Star Wars?}

Being outside the limits of time would've helped me accomplish everything on my leg list, which usually looked like this:
  • plan lunches for week
  • make grocery list
  • go to grocery: try to arrive before everyone and their children do
  • make chicken stock {can be started early in the morning and left to simmer while doing everything else}
  • take clothes to dry cleaners that have been hanging over the back of the armchair in my room for months
  • go to Home Depot: plan bathroom re-do?
  • do all laundry
  • clean bathrooms—especially scrub floors! Maybe twice!
  • vacuum whole apartment
  • vacuum car
  • figure out why garage clicker isn't working
  • make three-course dinner

And then, because I'm aware that free time is for relaxing, I would add a few "non-chore" items:
  • read paper
  • do crossword {time self! Try to beat time from last Saturday!}
  • journal
  • call three friends to catch up
  • write cards to three other friends: gosh, Kamiah, try to be a better and more consistent friend and not have to do these massive catch-ups

That all adds up to an impossible, intimidating list.

It's a laughable list. The kind of list you'd half-expect to end with:
  • conquer world by lunch: then have soup and grilled cheese?

It's also the kind of list that leads to guilt when you, quite inevitably, can't accomplish everything on there. Or even three things on there.

As the day progress and you don't make as much progress on your list as you'd like, you can start to feel weighed down.

I think it's the weight of those undone tasks, the weight of the things you aren't doing, dragging you down. Day after day, you feel like you aren't accomplishing what you need to. Yes, your definition of "need to do" may be off and unrealistic, but that doesn't matter in this scenario.

What matters is: you feel dragged down by these tasks, and even in admitting that, you add another task to your list: get over yourself. What's so hard, after all, in your life? Why don't you have the strength to get up and do what needs to be done?

In my mind, I see a person with hunched-over shoulders, an exhausted frown, and insomniac eyes, walking through a harvested field {stubbled and a burnt yellow} and pulling behind them a to-do list made of stapled-together scrap paper 100 miles long.

Wow. Sorry for the incredibly dramatic—if very vivid and perhaps paint-able—image there. But in all honesty, I got to a point earlier this fall where I did feel like that person.

I felt like someone trying to carry on doing all these tasks I didn't even know if I enjoyed anymore.

And it didn't matter how many lists I made or how many people I explained this to: at the end of the day, I still felt dragged down. Something had to change or I was prone to start wandering through harvested fields feeling sorry for myself.

I took comfort in this: I know many smart, time-savvy people who, given the opportunity, think they can accomplish 10 things at once and so they, too, make these leg lists.

Why do we do this? Why do we overestimate our abilities and underestimate our need for rest?

I think the answer lies in:
  • how common—expected, even—it is to multitask
  • how scheduled our lives can be so that we're either perplexed by free time or overzealous when it comes
  • if you're of a certain task-oriented, checklist-loving, order-bringing personality. {I may be one of those.}
I've been learning this fall—and now into Advent—about limiting the to-do list.

About not trying to conquer the world {or even my own little corner of it} in my free time.

About focusing on really, actually, truly needs to be done—and then setting the rest of my free time free.

And from that place—that place of wanting to feel less like my life was dragging—has come the MUST DO and NICE TO DO lists.


Which I'll tell you about in Part II, as well as wrap up the furniture re-arranging bit {bet you forgot that that's where this story started, didn't you?}

09 December 2011

white and clean {a poem}

The year's first snowfall is
of course
the topic of conversation at the office
as we all get our morning coffee.

"I'm not ready for winter," someone says.

"But it had to come, didn't it?" someone replies,
trying to be truthful and realistic.

The snow brings it out in us,
this ancient desire for honesty and fortitude,
conjuring up forebears
with a barn full of hay
and a cellar full of canned tomatoes,
ready for the winter.

The world has turned white and clean,
and we want to see the best in others
and in ourselves.

06 December 2011

jane austen may have looked like this

On Monday, big news hit the Jane Austen world: she may not have been ugly.

No, seriously, this was one of the headlines: Jane Austen wasn't as ugly as people think.

Jane has been in the news quite a bit over the last year or so—
Last fall, it was revealed that Jane's original manuscripts are full of terrible spellings and laughable attempts at grammar. The Queen of the Period Drama, unable to make a coherent sentence? If I knew what smelling salts were, I'd call for them; instead, I just wrote a little thing on her spelling mistakes, which you can read here.

Then there was the time a few weeks ago when a murder mystery author suggested that Jane Austen had been poisoned with arsenic. You can read about it in the Guardian here.

But—and my crime knowledge mostly stems from watching Law and Order with my parents {that chung-chung clangy thing they do at the end of scenes is addictive, I think}—don't you have to have a motive to have a murder? And who would want to kill Jane Austen?

I guess you could say someone who was jealous, but Charlotte Bronte {never Jane's biggest fan} was only 1 or so when Jane died. I don't think even the author who put a crazy lady in the attic of Thornfield Hall would've been familiar with arsenic in the cradle.

But—ooh!—maybe someone wanted to kill Jane because she was NOT ugly?!?!

Yes, it seems that Jane Austen was murdered because she was fairly all right looking. Let's go with that theory. I think that sounds like it should be the top item on the BBC News tonight.

This whole not ugly thing came about because an author who's writing a biography about Jane discovered what may be a portrait of her—and up until now, there have been just two accepted portraits of Jane.

One is an 1810 sketch by her sister Cassandra, and everybody says she looks cross about being a spinster in it.

This raises an important question: How do they {you know, smart academics} know she's cross about spinsterhood in the drawing? Couldn't she just have been upset that Elizabeth Bennet's character wasn't coming out right? Or maybe her sister was teasing her, or maybe she had a case of the mean reds.

One frown in a woman who is not married does not a cross spinster make. But you can judge for yourself—see the picture below. What do you think she's upset about?

The other accepted portrait is an 1870 re-doing of the sketch, one where Jane is not frowning but is looking off to the side, as if she's daydreaming about Mr. Darcy. This is the one used on most of the book markers and book jackets for Jane because who would want a picture of an angry spinster staring at you every time you picked up Sense and Sensibility?

So those are the two images we've had of Jane for hundreds of years, and when you're talking about a woman who couldn't spell and who may have been murdered, it's tiring to have to trot out the same images.

Enter the new portrait—and a sigh of relief that Jane wasn't ugly, although...

Okay, look at this potential new portrait of Jane.

Do you think this proves she wasn't ugly?

I see a crazy cat lady writer with a really long neck.

And I also think this: Why is it so important that we think of Jane Austen as pretty? As a successful woman? As a non-cross person? Why, if we can see so much of ourselves in our characters in their flaws and small joys, do we want Jane to line up with some sort of ideal?

Please discuss via a five-paragraph essay format. I will not judge you on your grammar and spelling, but do please include a picture.

02 December 2011

things i think about while swimming

I've recently taken up swimming for a couple of reasons:
  1. I may enjoy running, but running around and around a track through the winter is...exactly what it sounds like. It's like running in circles, a phrase generally applied to "I'm not getting anywhere" situations.

    Sometimes, no matter how many episodes of This American Life or Selected Shorts you listen to while going around the track, you're still acutely aware that you're wearing an oval-shaped hole into the earth. It starts to occur to you that when Dante talked about circles, they related to Hell.
  2. I'm not very good at swimming. I mean, as a girl raised on the banks of the Mississippi, I can swim. It just wouldn't be safe to take your children boating on the Muddy Mississippi if you didn't think they could swim back to the sandbar for safety. Although when it comes to the Mississippi, there are other dangers to consider beyond actually swimming:
    • Clams that can slice your foot open when you step on them, cursing that you didn't see it—but how could you have? Clams burrow into that Mississippi mud and wait for small children's feet to find them.
    • Speaking of mud, the mud from the Mississippi has been associated with wonderful things, ever since it got a pie named after it. But in reality, it smells like dead fish.
    • Many kids, after reading Huckleberry Finn, have dreams of building a raft and floating down the Mississippi. When you live in plain sight of the river, it's that much more tempting, and with driftwood forever floating up on the banks, it's that much more possible.
    So I can do the basics of swimming, but it's not something I've ever excelled at. I prefer the bobbing around a pool and then laying out and reading version of swimming. Doing handstands in the water is also a good way to swim.

    I decided that this winter, I would get better at swimming. I would get through the part where I'm flailing in the pool, coughing, and generally not looking very athletic—self-confidence-crushing though that stage may be. Sometimes, I think, it's good to do things that you're not very good at; it brings healthy humility into your day.
It's only been a couple weeks, and trust me, I'm not out of the flailing stage. But lap by lap, I know I'm getting stronger. Less of a flailure, if you will.

My brain helps me get through the half-mile I can currently swim by keeping me entertained. Thank goodness.

Things I Think about while Swimming

  • How long have I had this swimsuit? High school, when we all had to take yearly swimming lessons so that the school district could feel justified in choosing to build a pool instead of an auditorium?

    It's as if the school board thought, 'Well, even if the band kids have to play all their concerts on the middle school stage—thereby making them feel that they've never actually left that purgatory of middle school—at least they'll all be able to swim. Perhaps even with their French horns if they become strong enough swimmers...'
  • How can I run for close to 2 hours—quite the extended effort—but I can't swim a lap without needing to stop?
  • I kinda hate that old woman in the lane next to me. She will not stop. No pausing. No hanging on the side of the pool to catch her breath. She could probably swim her way off Alcatraz, should the need ever arise.
  • Slow and steady wins the race.
  • But I want to win the race right now. I'm not used to this lagging behind thing. Oh, I see—this swimming thing is supposed to teach me something about life. Way to go, water and old swimsuit.
  • I CAN'T BREATHE. But I have developed a funny, hacking cough.
  • I don't really hate that old woman anymore so much as I want to be her.

01 December 2011

breaking the rules {part III}

Like Maria in The Sound of Music taught us, you should start at the very beginning of this story: Part I.


After boldly walking down the Priority Access line, I handed over my boarding pass and smiled.

I asked how the TSA guy was doing, making sure I made eye contact. He was young—early 20s—tall, and thin, like an upright praying mantis with a badge.

"Boy, it's sure busy here today, isn't it? Do you have a long shift in front of you?"

"Not too bad. In fact, I'm going on break right now. You probably have a long day, though," he said as he looked at my driver's license, perhaps checking if the smile in the picture matched the smile on my face.

"Just a couple of meeting in New Jersey and then a dinner thing. It'll be a good day, I'm sure."

"I hope it is for you. You have a nice flight, Miss Walker." And with that, he handed back my boarding pass and driver's license and pointed me to the front of the line.


"I can't believe it worked," I told my boss when I found him at Gate K9. "I feel a little like I cheated, but it worked."

That's when he piped up with his advice about risking embarrassment and walking like you belong. I was thinking that over as I settled in to 29F. Book here, computer out, flash drive handy—and what about those hundreds of people I cut in front of? Were they all going to make their flights?

I though of the 30something guy in a hoodie who'd been in the process of taking off his shoes when the praying mantis TSA guy had waved me through. A shoe in his hand, he hopped on one foot and nodded at me to go ahead, as if I were some sort of airport celebrity, the Julia Roberts of O'Hare.

How long had he been waiting? Did he bite down all his fingernails in anxiety? Did he know that he had a hole in his sock?

"Excuse me." The businessman in 29D interrupted my guilty spiralling around holey socks and falsified importance. "I stopped at that new Rick Bayless restaurant—that Torta Frontera—and got this huge breakfast sandwich. There is no way I'll be able to eat all of it, so would you like half?"

"Are you serious?" The Julia Roberts of O'Hare probably shouldn't be so incredulous at kindness.

I sized up the man: late 40s, black suit, red tie, wedding ring, iPhone, and a slightly tanned look suggesting he hadn't spent all of this gray November in pasty-making Illinois.

Not that I knew what signs to look for, but he didn't seem like the type to buy a $10 sandwich, hide drugs in half of it, and then hope he sat near a pretty young woman who'd also boarded early so he could lure her with talk of locally-sourced bacon.

I took the sandwich. Of course I did.

29D and I talked foodie details {just the right crunchiness to the bread, the egg wasn't overwhelming, etc.} until the man in 29E sat down, and the two of them discussed a shared love of fishing musky. At that point, my contribution to the conversation was, "I don't like fish" and "In my high school athletic conference, there was a team called the Muskies."

About five minutes into the flight, the baby behind me, who had screamed through the entire take-off, suddenly stopped crying, coughed—and threw up. We're talking projectile, and I realized from the furious scrubbing of the back and side of my chair that if I'd been just a little more inclined to the left—if I'd still been in that conversation about bait and reels—that baby's impressive arc of puke would've hit me.

Life is messy, isn't it?

Good moments get smashed together with bad moments.

A day can start out so well and end so sadly—and vice versa.

You can do everything right and still not have things work out.

Or you can break the rules and have it all work out.

Sometimes, all you can do is say: I'm glad I'm here, full of good food and not covered in puke.

30 November 2011

breaking the rules {part II}

To get the full effect of me breaking the rules, you may want to start with Part I.


There were hundreds of us—thousands of us—who'd all gotten up before 5 to make it here to O'Hare for early morning flights.

I wanted to stop a random sampling and ask, "Where are you going? Did you also set your coffeemaker to auto-brew this morning so that you'd wake up to the smell of coffee? Are you excited for your trip? Is it vacation or work or something else entirely? Have you ever seen so many people here this early?"

Sometimes, the thought of the stories going on around us can be overwhelming. Do you ever look around a crowd and think—everyone here has one memory that always makes them giggle. Everyone has a heartbreak, and everyone has a favorite book or song or movie.

It sounds naive, but the wealth of stories can make me feel both incredibly small and blessedly in awe. It also reminds me of a quote I have written somewhere: "Be kind to everyone you meet. They all have troubles and joys of their own."

But faced with hundreds upon hundreds of people in the security line at O'Hare, I didn't want to consider anyone else's trouble. For the moment, it was all horribly, selfishly about my trouble: even though I'd done everything just as I should—checked in online, printed my boarding pass already, packed just a carry-on, worn uncomplicated shoes {read: easy to take off}, and arrived 75 minutes early—there was no way I was going to make my flight.

Hundreds of people literally stood in my way, each of them with their own giggly memory or whatever else I was just waxing lyrical about, not that I was thinking about that crap just then.

I was more thinking: if I get a good enough running start, can I hurdle over these people and what would the TSA think of my ninja move?

Because I'm not a ninja, I did the next best thing: I talked to an airline employee.
Me: Why, good morning, Sweet Airline Employee (SAE)! Gosh, lots of people here today. I wonder why that is.

SAE: It's because a lot of people bought plane tickets to fly today.

Me: Oh, yes, a very astute point. You're quite clever and a little sarcastic. I like that about you. Also, you look very sharp in your uniform.

SAE: [blank, bored stare, as if she hates her uniform] Can I help you?

Me: I sure hope so! [flash former cheerleader smile, hold for a few beats] Now, my flight is at 7:15, and I've been in this line for about 20 minutes. I'm a little concerned about how the line stretches from here to Iowa. I mean, look at that! There should be porta-potties and benches along there.

SAE: 7:15? Oh, you just might make it, honey.

Me: [encouraged by how she called me honey] Ok, it's that "just might" that has me worried. I have a lunch meeting at a very good pizzeria in Montclair, NJ, and I'd like to be there for it. You'd love this pizza, especially the salsiccia, I think—all their pizzas are cooked in an incredibly hot kiln sort of thing. Tastes just like Italy. But this line is in the way of my pizza. [flash cheerleader smile again, although I'm starting to get the impression that maybe this lady didn't like the cheerleaders at her high school. They must've been the snotty mean girl variety.]

SAE: Well, honey, maybe you should've planned ahead better.

Me I know you don't know me very well {beyond that I like pizza}, but that's the thing—I did plan ahead, and I never ask for exceptions, but...oh, you're walking away. And laughing. I see how it is. Bye!

My boss called just then, saying that he was at the gate and wow, there were a lot of people flying today and where was I?

"For how far I am from the gate, I may as well still be at home in bed with my little pug snoring away in her little bed," I told him as I eyed the unmoving line.

"You can always try going through the Priority Access line. That's what I did," he offered.

"Yes, but you actually have Priority Access. I have an American AAdvantage credit card: do you think I could flash that as proof that I'm special?"

"It's worth a shot."

"Flashing my credit card? That'd be like Hugh Grant in Notting Hill trying to get into a press conference by showing his Blockbuster card and saying he worked for their in-house magazine."

"No, not flashing your credit card. Just walk through Priority Access like you know what you're doing." As he said that, I stepped out of line and walked toward the empty Priority line.

"All right, I'll see you soon. I hope. If I don't get on the plane, assume I've been banned from the airport for life for breaking the rules. And maybe also beat up by all these other people in the security line who are obeying the rules."

I briefly considered keeping the phone at my ear as I handed my boarding pass to the TSA guy.

I'd pretend to be on an Important Call and say things like, "You let Frank know that his proposal is laughable. As if the ROI he's promising is even possible. Tell him to be realistic and get me a revision by the time I land. Yes, I'll be in the office for lunch. Get me that kind of pizza I like from the place I can never remember the name of. And a salad, but not with the funny kind of lettuce. Also, make sure my schedule is cleared for a 5-mile run at 3:30. I hope you know where my running shoes are. On second thought, tell Frank that was his last shot. He's done."

By the time I finished pretending to be Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada {is it bad that I was imagining being so many movie characters all in one morning?}, the TSA guy would've checked my boarding pass, overheard that I was an Important Person with a Schedule, and waved me through.

But I didn't do that, of course.


Coming tomorrow: Part III, aka The Ending When I Actually Tell You About the Sandwich and the Sick Baby

29 November 2011

breaking the rules {part I}

This is life: one minute, someone offers you a free sandwich. The next minute, a baby almost throws up on you.

Life is, in other words, a mix of the good and the bad. And the smelly. That's the reminder I'm taking from this early morning flight to New York.


I was one of the first people on the plane, thanks to my boss' Platinum flight status on American and me following breezily behind him through the Priority Access line, even though I was technically in boarding Group 4.

"Here's what I've learned from years of travelling," he told me as he grabbed my boarding pass to present with his, "if you walk into a place like you belong there, most people won't question you. And if they do question you, smile and apologize profusely. If you're willing to risk the embarrassment of publicly being told you're wrong, then you'll usually end up where you want to be."

I smiled at the gate attendant, and she waved me through after complimenting my sweater.

He was right, I knew, but the concept felt wrong because—well, what do you do when you're driving on a busy highway and there's a sign telling you to merge right because the lane is closed ahead?

I immediately merge after checking all mirrors and my blindspot and signalling and checking my blindspot again.

I do it because that's what the sign is telling me to do and because I like to obey all rules so that I don't get in trouble.

But then—same driving situation and you've already merged—how do you feel when someone else ignores the MERGE NOW sign and instead zips ahead in the now traffic-less left lane to that point where you have to merge or you'll hit some construction equipment?

Then they edge their way into the line of cars, into the line of people who did what they were supposed to. These drivers callously push in because they know you'll have to let them in: it's either that or hit them.

They know that you're a rule-abider because of the blindspot-checking, signalling, sweet waving at other drivers, merging early thing you did the minute you saw the MERGE sign.

They know you won't succumb to road rage because as many times as you've seen Fried Green Tomatoes, you don't actually want to re-enact the famous "Towanda" scene where Kathy Bates rams the car of someone who stole her parking spot.

See that look of glee on her face as she rams into the other car? You will not have this look because you will not ram the car that ignored the MERGE sign and then cut in front of you. That rule-breaker knows that, and that's why they push into the line of cars in front of you.

But maybe when you get home, you'll make a plate of fried green tomatoes as a way to channel your rage. And because they're good comfort food.

How do you feel when someone ignores the rules like that?

I feel like screaming, "Cheater! Cheater!" That shrill cry coming directly off the playground. Do they think rules don't apply to them? These people with their blinkers menacingly clicking "Ha, ha! Me first! Ha, ha!"—do they think they're better than everyone else?

And yet.

For all my righteous anger at people who do not follow the rules of the road, I essentially did the same thing this morning, only not in a car: When faced with a massively long security line at O'Hare {hundreds and hundreds of people at just past 6am}, I jumped the line. I tricked the system. I didn't wait. I got ahead.

And it worked.

I think, if I were to be described as a character in a Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell novel, it would go like this:
She was fastidious about following rules,
except when breaking them was to her advantage.


Coming soon: Part II, in which I explain how I bypassed the longest security line I'd ever seen and got rewarded with a free breakfast sandwich, not that I'm saying that sandwich was some sort of twisted karmic reward {even though the bacon was really good} and that I've given up my rule-abiding ways and now will be ignoring all signs and regulations.

28 November 2011

baby jesus is naughty

I don't remember how I broke baby Jesus.

Most likely, I was playing with him. There was a lack of toys at Grandma and Grandpa Walker's house, and my options were: wooden blocks or paper for drawing/hat making/confetti making.

Baby Jesus, as I called the statue when I was a 3ish-year-old, was always out in the living room, looking a lot like a little porcelain doll and therefore a lot like a toy. He wasn't actually Jesus as a baby—more Jesus as an angelic-looking toddler, which may be why my grandma kept him out when I was over: to give me an example of a good little child.

I may have been only 3, but I'd already provided my family with enough stories of "the time Kamiah showed off her strong will and intense personality" to last a lifetime. Certainly enough to last my lifetime, seeing as these stories are still brought up at many a family gathering:
  • The time Kamiah screamed every five minutes for no apparent reason on a several hour car ride—aka, the time the family wanted to attach me to the roof of the car
  • The time Kamiah threw a temper tantrum at a soccer match at the 1984 Olympics because her dad wouldn't buy her—little 2-year-old her—a king-size Snickers bar all for herself
  • The time(s) Kamiah screamed without stopping for a breath—and then passed out, only to wake up a few minutes later the picture of contrition, a cuddly little thing who rivaled Beth from Little Women for sweetness
Most of these stories end with the summary: "My gosh..."

{This usually said in the very Iowan accent of "My gaish"}

"My gosh, she was a little hellion."

As a 3-year-old, I already had a bit too much of the hell-raiser in me, so my grandma probably encouraged me to play with baby Jesus; perhaps his general heavenly character would rub off on me.

Or maybe I'd want to start imitating his sweetly innocent face—smiling as if he had never thought he deserved a candy bar that was bigger than his head—and then for once in my life, I'd have my mouth shut and I wouldn't be screaming.

So I was playing with baby Jesus. Given my obsession with cheerleading and gymnastics at that time, I was probably making him do triple back flips with a double twist. This meant I was throwing him in the air and then hoping my chubby little fingers would catch him, iffy hand-eye coordination notwithstanding.

Or maybe I was making him be the top of the pyramid during the cheerleaders' big halftime routine. Maybe his teammates were St. Francis of Assisi and the Holy Mother, and they, I'm sorry to say, let him down, not supporting baby Jesus well enough while he gave a big "GO, TEAM!"

Down down down our Lord and Savior tumbled because his cheerleading squad didn't have very good spotters, people positioned to catch Jesus, should he ever fall. Peter was probably his spotter, but it maybe would've been smart to make Mary the spotter, seeing as she did stay at the foot of the cross until they lowered his body. She totally would've caught baby Jesus the cheerleader who took a tumble from the top of the pyramid.

Regardless of how it happened, I broke baby Jesus. His head came right off, and my grandma walked into the living room to see me standing there with his body in one hand and his head in another.

I looked up at her and then hid baby Jesus' head and body behind my back. If she couldn't see him, then he didn't exist, right?

"Kamiah! You broke baby Jesus! You are a very naughty girl!" My grandmother stood with her hands on her hips, the time-honored posture for angry grandmothers. A finger-wagging may have also been involved.

I glared right back at her and snapped, "Baby Jesus is broke; baby Jesus is naughty!"

At that, I'm sure my very, very Catholic grandmother crossed herself and started going through the rosary in an attempt to make God forget what her next-door-to-a-heathen granddaughter had just said.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, and I'm sorry that girl is being raised Pentecostal and not Catholic and that she just said your son is naughty after she decapitated him.
Blessed art thou among women, and if you forgive her, I promise I'll try to make her become Catholic, especially in about 20 years when she starts to attend an Anglican church.
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, who, just for the record, I don't think is naughty.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, but mostly for that little hellion who just killed your son.


23 November 2011

how i developed a cleaning playlist


That up there—that widget {who sounds tech-savvy now?}—that's my Cleaning Playlist. I've had it in mind to create one for awhile now, but a few weeks ago, I decided to make good on that idea because...well, read this story. It should explain why.

A couple of Saturdays ago, my heating and air conditioning man was supposed to come at 10am to fix my humidifier, which, apparently, isn't working, a fact that may explain my dry lips and parched throat during winter.

This is the same heating and air conditioning man who was featured in my story "Some Like It Hot. I Do Not," so in some ways, I was looking forward to the visit.

Not wanting to be idle and awkward while he was there, I started a small cleaning project at 9:45ish. See, I live alone, and having someone else in my space throws me off.

What I mean is—before all my friends decide they're never really welcome and that I'm simply being polite when I ask them over—when there's another person in my apartment, 99% of the time, it's because I've asked them over for dinner or coffee or to watch a movie.

My heating and air conditioning man is the 1%—someone I have invited over but who's there to do a job. However, my brain works like this: "Someone else is in the apartment! You need to entertain him! Offer him pain au chocolat just out of the oven! See if he wants coffee! Stand and talk to him while he works!"

I'm not used to being in my apartment with someone else just being there quietly doing their own thing, so when heating and air conditioning man—who will forever afterward be referred to as HACM—comes over, I'm liable to break into a routine of "Let Me Entertain You," if only I knew how to tap dance.

This is why I was cleaning at 9:45ish: to control the urge to entertain. If you've found a better way to turn off your jazz-hands-big-finish personality, let me know.

Besides: idle hands do the devil's work, you know, and so I was cleaning the counters with Barkeeper's Friend, which is not a lonely drunk but a magical cream that takes away any stain with hardly any scrubbing.

Time tick-tocked closer to 10am as I wiped away whatever it was I let boil over on the stove. On my pristine white stove, these mars of dirtiness tend to look like burnt cheese, not that I recall letting cheese boil over, but there they were, scars of meal eaten, disappearing as I pretended to be a bartender, a job I wouldn't be good at.

It'd go like this: "You want what kind of drink? I've never heard of that. Can I just give you red wine instead? That I know and understand."

You know how it is: you get caught up in cleaning behind the canisters and time passes without you noticing it. After wiping down the sugar canister, I glanced at the clock: 10:12.

HACM {how are you pronouncing that in your head? Hack 'em? Because that's how I'm doing it.} definitely should've been there by 10:12, but time in that profession seems to run differently, as if handymen have created their own space-time continuum. That is to say: HACM has shown up late before, and he's stayed for more than an hour but charged me for only an hour's work before. I decided to embrace HACM's space-time continuum, a lesson I learned from Star Trek.

The counters clean, I moved on to the floor.

On my knees, I was cleaning the baseboards as it became 10:30 and then 10:41 and by the time it was 10:53, I was wiping down the cabinets, and I was fuming.

20 November 2011

my subconscious is quite the fiction writer

I woke up to the remnants of a dream about picture day at school.

Except: the school was providing the outfits, my Realtor was the photographer, and we weren't being photographed but videoed singing the National Anthem. With back-up singers. And a full band.

I'm still unclear on how this was going to work, but we each were given a word of "The Star Spangled Banner," and we sang the song up to that point {patriotism only goes so far, you know}.

My word was at the end—"...o'er the land of the free / and the home.."—so I had plenty of time to choose an outfit.

How much stock do you put in dreams?

Does it mean anything that I didn't want to wear most of the school's options because they were scandalously short and provocatively cut? I remember shouting at one point, "But none of us are Katy Perry!"

Does it mean anything that I kept quietly saying, "I wish you had more outfits like Audrey Hepburn wore in Roman Holiday"?

Like this outfit. Why couldn't I have been given this option to wear while singing the National Anthem? Also, holding Atticus Finch's hand while singing would make me as American as apple pie.

This outfit might've been too much. Besides, it's gauche to sing the National Anthem—about fighting the British—in an outfit that looks like what Queen Elizabeth wore to her coronation.

My dreams tend to be so detailed yet zany that I don't think much of them—when I can even remember them. Ask me sometime about my VERY SPECIFIC dream of driving over cadavers {yes, cadavers} in a pick-up truck that was driven from the back seat, not the front seat. Also, my vision was blurry in that one, as it usually is in my dreams. {You don't need a degree in psychology to interpret that last part: I'm scared of going blind.}

Given the few times a year I do remember my dreams, I'm thankful that I can't remember them more often. The intricacies of the stories make me tired, and you should not wake up tired.

My subconscious clearly works overtime at night and becomes quite the fiction writer.

17 November 2011

i will never be warm again: lessons from the cold

When the weather turns cold again, there is a moment every year when you think, 'I will never be warm again. The earth will never come out of the winter it's heading into.'

Then you realize that it's actually 37 degrees and that it will, unfortunately but inevitably in the Midwest, get much colder.

Please tell me that you have this moment, too, so that I don't feel like such a wuss, someone so unworthy to be a descendent of my farming ancestors {and in one case, a peddling ancestor—no, for real, one of my ancestors, someone not that far back in the family tree, was a peddler}.

My moment came last night. I was walking Miss Daisy, and I had on a hat, my mittens from Norway, and a wool scarf wrapped tightly and tucked into my coat. I was shivering from the cold and yet I couldn't even really see my breath in the still night air.

It will get so much colder, and my body will acclimate.

This is the great wonder and lesson of living somewhere with four season.

The Wonder

Every few months, the scenery drastically changes, and we get to take in spring buds, humidity, falling leaves, and snow. This keeps us from much monotony because even a drive to the grocery store will eventually look different—colors, lack of colors, leaves, lack of leaves, everything in white because it's an icy-snow mess and you better hope you don't slide and you really should've put together that winter preparedness kit, etc.

Speaking of the grocery store and food, we have come so far from when food selection was limited by the seasons or canning. I feel qualified to say something like this because of the aforementioned farming ancestors.

Now, as we're all aware, you can pretty much get anything at any time of the year. Yes, there are times when certain produce is better—when it's at its peak, I do believe it's called, when what is really meant it: it's the traditional harvest time.

If you get apples in February, they won't be as peak-full as in the fall when you're supposed to be making apple pies and applesauce and whatever else you can think of to make with the five bushels of apples you somehow ended up with after apple picking.

But you can still get apples in February.

You can get strawberries in November, if you have a whim to make strawberry shortcake for Thanksgiving.

We no longer have to wait for the harvest; we no longer get the anticipation of waiting for the season's first plum and then biting into it—delicious, so sweet, and so cold. This is just to say: we have lost something when we got pulled so far off the land, and I'm glad we have the wonder of seasons to remind us that we used to be more tied to the land.

The Lesson

The seasons teach that it is possible to adapt to change. You may forget every year how cold it gets, but it won't take long for you to pull out the long underwear, find the warm gloves, and remember how cozy your home feels when you first step inside from a -20 degree day.

We're all much more adaptable than we think. We do get used to change, and the seasons remind us of our great adaptability.

This is important to remember when something so large and shifting happens in your life—that you're sure you'll never be able to adjust.

Think of things like your best friend getting married or people having babies or even you yourself getting into a relationship. I should stress that these are all good things {babies mean, for example, that you get to buy adorable clothes—little sweater vests! tiny dresses with ruffles!—and look forward to videos of the baby giggling}.

But just as we're an adaptable people, we're also a freak-out-about-change people. It's natural to see how everything will be different, and it's also natural to skip over the fact that different isn't actually synonymous with bad.

Different can be nice, once you get used to it.

Just like the humidity in the summer and the snow in the winter.

15 November 2011

what i shouted at npr today

On my way to the gym this morning, I was listening to NPR, as I am wont to do in the before-light hours so that I can be better prepared for the day and any possible discussions of news.

It also helps me plan my outfit for the day—that weather report is so useful.

This morning, NPR reported on the dismal progress of the supercommittee, the bipartisan group that is supposed to be hammering out a deal to cut the country's deficit by more than a trillion dollars over the next 10 years. Their deadline is Thanksgiving, and David Wellna said something pithy and very NPR: "So that means they only need to find, oh, about $133 billion a day in possible cuts until the deadline."

And before I could stop myself, I was yelling, "I hate you, supercommittee! You aren't super at all!"

Only the streetlights on Harrison in Wheaton heard me, and they didn't even flicker at my Angry Citizen outburst.

I kept going; I clearly needed an outlet for this rage and the streetlights didn't seem to mind.

"No, not super at all! What have you been doing since August? Trying to come up with superhero nicknames for each other? Designing your outfits?

"Here's the deal: I've taken over designing your outfits, and NONE of you get capes. And you all have to wear your underwear on the outside of your pants. And your pants will be seven sizes too large in in your least favorite color.

"Also, they will be made of the itchiest wool ever created, and they will smell like sheep. Wet sheep.

"How super do you feel in that, huh, supercommittee?"

As I stopped at the four-way stop sign at President, I tried to calm myself down. Tried to see things from their perspective.

"Look, I know I don't know what it's like in Washington. I've been there a couple of times, and it seems pretty and historic, but no, I've never had to find a trillion dollars in the country's proverbial couch cushions.

"I'm sure this has been hard on you. All that political posturing couldn't have been good for you, probably put quite a strain on your back, actually.

"But come on, everybody said that you'd have to reach a deal because if you didn't, immediate budget cuts to defense and other programs would go into effect. Now, though, you're all talking about how if Congress put that trigger in place, it can just as easily remove that trigger.

"HOW IS THAT FAIR? What was the point of the trigger then?!?! What was the point of you, supercommitte?!?"

Obviously, I didn't maintain my cool head.

I couldn't help myself. This morning, I was channeling a bit of Julia Sugarbaker from Designing Women on my way to the gym.

Like in this video {ooh, a video! Such fun on the blog here today!}. Thanks to her, I sometimes wish I spoke with a Southern accent.

14 November 2011

on pushing 30

"The one thing you should know about me is this: I'm the consummate good girl."

That's how the back cover of a book by Whitney Gaskell begins. The book is a pinkish-purple, and the cover involves a swirly font—looks like it could've been handwritten by a 15-year-old hoping to appear fancy—and high heels.

I tell you all these cover details because, contrary to that saying, I most definitely judge a book by its cover. I am seduced by typeface, clean design, and—although this is on the inside of the book, so perhaps it makes me seem less judge-y of outward appearances—hefty, creamy paper. No, saying that I like the touch of a book doesn't make me seem less superficial.

Maybe re-phrasing this way helps: the sensory details—the aesthetics, too—of a thing add to the reading experience.

You know it's true: the weight of a book in your hands, the smell of the paper, the pressure in your fingernail when you dogear a page to mark a favorite passage. These details are valid.

And these details, when applied to the Whitney Gaskell book I found next to Wives and Daughters at the library, said:

I am chick lit.

I am set in either a big East Coast city {preferably NYC} or a small town that is based not on the reality of small town life but more on the idealized but updated Donna Reed version of small town life. In this small town, there is a charming cafe that rivals Starbucks and has vegan options, even though in a real small town, you'd be going to something called the Dairy Barn for your Maxwell House drip coffee and ham salad sandwich at lunch.

I will have a protagonist who is either in publishing or a lawyer. Regardless of which it is, she will have the same amount of money and be able to buy scarily expensive shoes a la Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.

Those high heels may figure prominently in a scene where she meets a man who is perfect for her. She will meet him just after breaking a heel.

Or she will meet him the one time she doesn't wear the heels when she runs a quick errand—dashing out of her hardwood-floored, granite countertopped, vintage-feeling apartment that could be used for a photo shoot for Anthropologie. She will meet him when she hasn't done her hair and when she's wearing sweatpants and old running shoes.

I would make a good movie starring Katherine Heigl.

Chick lit can be so comforting in its predictability.

Chick flicks bring the same comfort. You know that Katherine Heigl is, indeed, going to get together with whoever it is after they go through a spell of "No, I hate YOU more! Also! Look at my adorable pencil skirt! Also! Have you met my whacky but endearing friends? Also! I think you're self-centered, but aha, I just learned that you can make an amazing coq au vin. You're full of surprises; I think I'll stick around."

Sometimes, you just want predictable comfort. Actually, a lot of times I want predictable comfort, which may be why I like Jane Austen so much and why I was at the library to get an Elizabeth Gaskell book in the first place.

I decided to go for the predictable comfort of the Whitney Gaskell book, too, because:

  • the book is called Pushing 30: And I am, indeed, pushing 30.

    I did not get this book as either a) a guide {how can I make the last month of my 20s hilarious and worthy of a chick flick? And if I were to be in a chick flick, who would play me? I wish Audrey Hepburn were still available. I would also accept Mary Tyler Moore.}


    On this whole turning 30 thing: I'm not freaked out at all/delving into over-analyzation/starting to act like I'm wise beyond my years/thinking wistfully of college/officially declaring myself a spinster/planning on finally losing all inhibitions and partying until I forget how old I am.

    But I will read a silly book about someone else turning 30.

  • the protagonist—Ellie—called herself the consummate Good Girl: And I relate to that, although she does talk about washing her make-up off every night, even when she's tired. If that is a sign that you're a Good Girl {and not, you know, going to church and singing in the choir and spending nights in Vegas reading Persuasion}, well, then, I may not qualify. I get really tired and lazy—and FYI, start to make a lot less sense—at about 10pm.
  • the back cover talks about Ellie's pug: Honest-to-goodness, I was thinking that I could put the book back on the shelf.

    The story sounded so-so—and SO trite, actually. It's about how Ellie, our adorable lawyer who lives in Washington, DC, meets a man twice her age, and she immediately falls for him. But, OMG, can she finally have some happily-ever-after happen to her with "the one man who's so wrong for her, he's perfect"? {What does that even mean?}

    Plus, I could relate to Ellie only it that she was almost 30 and a Good Girl with a Clean Face {sometimes, on my part}. The rest of it—dysfunctional family {that's right, family, I don't think we're dysfunctional! Do not take Thanksgiving as a chance to prove me wrong!}, hating her job {Dear People I Work With: I like my job.}—I didn't relate to at all.

    Even from the back cover copy, I could tell I wasn't going to be all that invested in her family/hating work problems. Most likely, if we were friends in real life, I'd tell her to pull herself together.

    But then, there was this: "...and she's somehow become enslaved to her demanding pet pug Sally." A pet pug! Just like mine! Maybe this book will be portentous for the next month before I turn 30, especially since I dress up my pug like this:

    If that little face doesn't say "demanding pet pug," I don't know what does.

Turns out I shouldn't have let the mention of a pug sway me. In general, that's actually a pretty good life principle to live by: do not be swayed by pugs.

I didn't make it beyond the first chapter where Ellie meets The Older Man—while, GASP, running an errand in her sweatpants because she had a home-hair coloring disaster! How could she let herself go out in public like that? Oh, such tragedy! Oh, and her pink hair!

I hope you can tell from the number of exclamation points that I had very little sympathy for her. I did have a little for her pug, though.

And from now on, I will stick with Elizabeth Gaskell when I'm in the G section of fiction at the library.

11 November 2011

go fish

I was drinking black coffee out of a white IKEA coffee cup. It came in a set of six—along with six blue and white saucers—for one of those impossible IKEA prices, like $3.00 or something.

When you're first setting up house, it's difficult to ignore the siren song of IKEA, beckoning to you just off the expressway, and it's only much later that you realize that nice furniture doesn't involve fake wood veneer that can peel off, nor is it made of compressed layers of something that was, perhaps, maybe at one time, wood.

Or those compressed layers that are making up your stylish yet frustrating-to-assemble bookcase {why isn't the faceless IKEA man on the directions ever shown fighting with the person who's trying to help him assemble the furniture? Because that happens all the time and is pretty much part of the process}—those layers could just be scraps of Swedish newspaper that have been skiied over by blonde-headed Swedish people as they chant in practically unaccented English about how they will draw America's youth to them with promises of cheap meatballs.

But these white coffee cups from IKEA have stood the test of time and two moves. In IKEA world, they are heirlooms now.

I was drinking out of one when I suddenly thought of Grandma Walker. It was the black coffee in it that reminded me, I think.

She had coffee throughout the day, I seem to recall, and it was always black. My grandparents had these milky glass mugs that showed the faintest outline of the coffee through as she drank cup after cup.

Grandma Walker would always have a cup of black coffee on the kitchen table as we played Go Fish when I was just a very little girl. Because my hands weren't big enough to hold all the cards, I would use the swivel kitchen chair as my card stand. I'd swing the chair around so that the back was facing the table.

High-backed, no arms, and covered in a light brown plasticky material that made them easy to clean, those chairs were set-up for me to play cards.

I'd crouch on the chair, studying my carefully-arranged cards—they were propped up in between the seat and the back—and peek around the side to study my grandma, to see if she was giving away any clues in her face.

Glancing out the kitchen window: did that mean she had 3s?

Looking at the orange and brown flowered wallpaper: maybe it meant she had no 3s?

Hard to tell. My grandma's thin but sturdy face and milky eyes rarely betrayed a tell.

I'd pop above the back of the chair as she took another drink of her coffee. "Do you have any 3s, Grandma?"

"Go fish," she'd say.


"Oh, you got me! Here you go," she'd say.

And I'd retreat to my hiding place to study her some more and wonder if I'd ever like coffee as much as she did.

10 November 2011

when it turns cold, my thoughts turn to england

When the weather turns cold and damp—just as it's been this week—my thoughts naturally turn to England, and my reading choices soon follow.

My mind associates the wet cold with England because:
  • That's what it was like when I lived there. It was a semester abroad—the fall term—and while I'm sure there were sunny days, what I mostly remember is wet leaves, an ineffective umbrella, and slick steps outside the National Portrait Gallery, where I'd go to look at Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who caused a king to give up his throne. In her portrait, she almost smirks haughtily down at you as if she's in on a joke. {The punchline for that joke may be, “...and then I almost destroyed the monarchy!”}

    I was drawn to her portrait time and again, possibly because other wings of the National Portrait Gallery involved many, many oil paintings of people in lace collars who looked like they'd been eating lumpy porridge for every meal for 13 years.

    In Wallis' portrait, though, she has a sprig of flowers pinned to her blue shirtdress, and when I looked up at her, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, forget these British people. They're a tricky lot to figure out, so show them some American gumption, just like I did.”

    It seems silly to say now, especially after reading more of her story and seeing how she was portrayed in The King's Speech, but when I needed a boost on a foggy day in London-town, I'd go visit Wallis, my fellow American. She made the rain and cold and loneliness seem laughable, like a big joke that we were both in on.
  • of that scene in Sense and Sensibility when Marianne and Margaret Dashwood are on a rainy walk through the Devonshire countryside. “Is there a felicity in the world superior to this? Margaret, we will walk here at least two hours,” Marianne enthuses over the little bits of blue sky peeking through, as Jane Austen describes it, “a showery sky.”

    Don't say things like that, Marianne—that thing about felicity and walking. You are the personification of flights of fancy in Jane's world, and I think I should let you know: she's using you to teach a lesson about how impulsiveness and unguarded emotions lead to tumbles down rain-slicked hills overlooking the sea. Literally and metaphorically.

    Going on and on about blue sky and the animating gales of a southwesterly is not going to end well for you, Marianne, so you may as well come in from the rain and embroider something.

    I am so like Elinor. Thank heavens. But that also helps explain why rainy days make me want to stay inside with a book, preferably one set in England.

I went to the library recently with this goal in mind: get something set in England.

Having just re-read Persuasion and wanting to avoid appearing like a one-trick pony {not that I'm concerned about my personal brand, but I do think it should be more than "I am obsessed with Jane Austen"}, I decided to expand beyond Jane; I went for Elizabeth Gaskell.

That's Elizabeth Gaskell of Cranford, Wives and Daughters, and North and South.

The Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote in the mid-1800s and who has been so good to the BBC and its desire to make every book written in the 1800s into a period drama they can cheer the nation with on Sunday nights through the cold, damp England fall and winter.

I pulled Wives and Daughters off the shelf and then glanced to the right at the book right next to it. This is one of great pleasures of the library, by the way: going to a section where you need one book, and then taking a look around to see what else that section has to offer.

If I'm ever in a reading bind—and it does happen, especially when I have no seasonal promptings to read things set in England—I pick a letter and then go to that section of fiction. With my head tilted and my fingers tracing the spines, I don't let myself leave until I find a book or two, maybe even something out of my typical reading likes.

Right next to Wives and Daughters was a book by Whitney Gaskell. 'Maybe she's a great-great granddaughter!' I thought, nerdily excited by this idea of a modern-day Elizabeth Gaskell.

I stood on my tippy-toes to pull the book down and saw there was no way in heck I was checking this book out.

That is, until I read the back cover.


I'll tell you why soon, I promise.

09 November 2011

cooking for one and for all

The smell of garlic and onions sauteing in olive oil fills a kitchen. As soon as the onions hit the pan with a quiet sizzle, the memory of chili, meatloaf, and cold winter nights starts to saute, too.

No matter where you find yourself, smell is reliably the same. Whether in Iowa or Glen Ellyn or France or anywhere, it's true that when onion starts to sweat and turn translucent, it smells precisely the same. It is a constant to savor, and there is ritual comfort in cooking.

Since I live alone, people often say to me, "But isn't it tiresome to cook for yourself every night?"

I smile and offer up two secrets.

One, I do not cook for myself every night, but thank you for believing me capable of that.

Two—although I'd hope this one wasn't a secret—I'm worth it.

I take great care in planning meals for others. Today is my best friend's birthday, and we're having a small dinner. I spent Sunday afternoon flipping through cookbooks to plan a meal that was just right for her, and then I scheduled in times to do the shopping, prepping, and cleaning.

I took great care for her meal, and I'm worth just as much care, aren't I?

Of course.

I am—we all are—worth the excitement of planning and the ritual comfort of clicking on the gas burner to saute onions.

08 November 2011

i am a crazy pug lady

When I write in the early morning—I've been getting up at 5:15ish to write before going to the gym—Miss Daisy, my little pug, sits just next to me in another of the kitchen chairs.

It's as if we're an old farm couple, sitting here having coffee. Ours is the only kitchen light on for miles, and the cheery yellow glow is an oasis or a beacon in the dark. It's the only thing, besides the hope of a good day, pushing back against the darkness.

But we're, of course, not an old farm couple. We're just sitting in a square of light in the suburbs.

Miss Daisy sits so patiently in her chair, and she sits so observantly. Her eyes follow my hand as I try to fill the paper with words that are worth leaving, with words I don't need to claw away, to scratch out.

When I look up and smile at her, happy I didn't cross out a word in the last sentence, she looks woefully back at me. She's a pug; woeful is her typical face, particularly when she's just waking up from a night's sleeping and snoring.

Her wrinkled brow seems to say, "Are you sure you want to write that? Are you sure you're happy with it? It's all right if you need to keep trying. I'll stay right here next to you."

And then she looks hopefully, not woefully, at my coffee cup, sitting in an NPR mug on the table in between us. She's perhaps suggesting that she have a sip or two of that as a reward for her encouragement.

I scratch her behind the ears, tell her that pugs shouldn't have coffee, and get back to scratching on my paper.

01 November 2011

away, away they must go

It was a cold fall morning, feeling for all the chill in the air just as November 1 should. As I walked baby pug down a side street and past a house with a bright red door and a For Sale sign out front, the birds above us chattered the solfege.

Do-re-mi, they said to one another, perched {a word made for birds, I tell you} in a tree that still had most of its leaves, which were finch-gold and full of glory and grace.

The leaves hid the birds; looking up into the branches spreading across the pink sky, all I saw were leaves and all I heard was birdsong, as full of glory and grace as the leaves hiding the little singers.

A movement then—was it me? Or the pug?

A movement—a signal from time immemorial, perhaps—set them off, and in one flap of their wings, they were away.

For just a moment, it seemed the tree was moving, flying away, lifting off. The birds were extended branches, and because of them, the tree stood taller, scratched more of the sky.

The small black birds had stopped singing, and now they were no longer hidden by the golden leaves. They were dotting the sky above me—away, away they must go.

The manipulation of air: that was all there was to hear as the birds aimed up and away. Wings moving air, and even in an instant, I thought of the beauty of physics and creation. Science and nature together {can they ever be apart?} give the illusion of magic at times.

All around me, gold pieces were falling, gently—a ballet of the season. The leaves felt released when the birds revealed themselves, and down the leaves fell as up the birds rose.

I stood in the midst of falling gold and heard the birds start singing again as they decided on a direction. This way, this way—they beckoned to each other.

And the leaves piled on the ground.

31 October 2011

on being a grown-up

A quote for the day, simple and pithy.

One of those short collections of words that makes you say, "Why, yes, that is exactly how I would phrase it, but you beat me to it.  And I will not hold that against you."

“Another belief of mine; that everyone else my age is an adult,
whereas I am merely in disguise.”
Margaret Atwood

30 October 2011

you pierce my soul: a jane austen letter

I read an entire book to get to one letter. It was 234 pages in Persuasion before I got to—
Miss A.E—

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan. —Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes?—I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others. —Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating in


I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening, or never.

Emphasis mine, all mine. And were this letter mine.

There is something so rewarding in getting to this letter from Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. I can't believe I'm about to say this about Jane Austen, but there are some clunky, mediocre sections of this book, but I push through those because I know this letter is at the end.

Yeah, I totally just critiqued Jane. To atone for that {someone with Jane Austen in her blog name, digging into her beloved idol!}, I'm going to offer this praise and hope I don't get kicked out of the I Heart Jane Austen Society {that I don't actually belong to}: No one else can so exquisitely create insufferable relations like Jane Austen, and she showcases that in Persuasion.

With a completely quiet and straightforward delivery, she gives us characters so laughable that we can't help but thank our lucky genealogy that they aren't in our family. I think her genius lies in never allowing Anne Elliot, our lovely heroine, to mock her father or her sister, no matter how much they warrant an eye roll or a derisive snort.

Jane does the same thing in Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth knows how ridiculous her mother and most of her sisters are, but we see that she knows how to deal with their emotions and dramatics and self-centered drivel. In Elizabeth's position and given her verbal prowess, most of us would take every opportunity to cut and dice and remind her mother that the world does not revolve around her and her hypochondriac histrionics.

But Elizabeth doesn't do that; instead, she guides her silly sisters and sets a good example and tries to cover their social gaffes.

In Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet {and Elinor Dashwood; I can't leave her out of this list}, we have examples of how we ought to act, and just reading about them makes you feel like a better person, like someone who can handle tricky co-workers and meddling mothers {not talking about you, Mama!} and people who are more concerned with the latest fashion than with what's happening in the big world.

Thank heavens for Anne Elliot's example and ability to manage her preening, egotistical, out-of-touch father: that and the letter from Captain Wentworth at the end of the book are what keep me reading Persuasion, even as I roll my eyes at some sections.

{I may have read Jane Austen's books repeatedly, but I have yet to learn her heroines' ability to not roll their eyes at silliness.}

Take the big drama section when Louisa Musgrove takes a tumble on a pier at Lyme. It's written in a "this happened and then this happened and then this happened and after that, there was this" style that doesn't lend itself to getting emotionally caught up in the moment—as clearly all the characters are.

I mean, it must be shocking to see someone smack her head against a stone walkway, but when I read this section, I mostly think, 'Was it really that bad? Or are these people overreacting? This is the time when they believed that if you had a cold, you should be kept in bed for three weeks. And they believed in using leeches to suck your blood to make you better. They clearly were not health authorities; maybe Louisa just needs some smelling salts and then the story can move on.'

By the end of the scene, though, you realize that this is a pivot point in the story—from this moment, something changes in Anne and Captain Wentworth's relationship—and you find yourself needing to re-read the last few pages to try to get into the drama.

Or at least I do. But the second reading leaves me cold still and I blame it all on Jane's prosaic, practically bullet-pointed presentation of the drama.

Eh, I think. At least there's that letter at the end of the book to redeem this.

After spending 234 pages with insufferable relations, self-centered people, and blase descriptions of action, when you get to this written declaration of love, you stop breathing, just as, I'm sure, Anne Elliot did when she read this letter for the first time.

And that is why I keep reading Persuasion: to get to the point where I don't breathe.


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