29 June 2011

my want to-do list

Recently, I was cleaning out the files on my computer from college, and I bumbled my way into this document called "want to do lists."

As soon as I opened it, I laughed. Out loud. My sophomore year, two of my roommates and I sat down late one night and made these lists, our own versions of bucket lists.

I can't remember what brought this on, but does anyone remember why you did something in college? It was late, you were tired of reading Wordsworth or doing differential calculus, and you started to talk about your life post-college.

In my experience, people in college think they have figured out post-college life. They dream of a time when they won't have homework every night, conveniently forgetting that they also won't have a meal plan.

Post-college, you will be a bona fide grown-up. You will grab life by the horns, and you will have the most amazing ride.

And that's true, of course—being a grown-up is full of perks, such as being able to have ice cream whenever you want it.

But being a grown-up isn't one exciting bull ride after another.

Sometimes the bull is asleep, and sometimes the bull is running right for you, as if you were in Pamplona, sprinting down a narrow cobblestone street in a little red scarf.

And sometimes you have to eat the bull. I don't really know if this fits into my metaphor, but it's a convenient segue to telling a story:

My junior year, I studied in Aix-en-Provence, France. {Thanks to that time, I'm able to check numbers 12, 19, 28, and 30 off the list.} My mama came over for a visit, and we had a mommy-daughter trip of a lifetime, except I was only 21, so I'm demanding that she and I have more mommy-daughter trips in our lifetimes.

We toured vineyards in Burgundy, even though neither of us knew much about wine at that point. But we did this tour on bicycles, which we both know a lot about.

However, I don't know if you know this, but vineyards are hilly. Extremely hilly. We ended up lost on a back country road pushing our bikes up a hill {she got off first, I'd like to point out}, but we were together and that was good.

We went to Arles to see the Van Gogh sites but ended up being there during a bullfighting festival. Arles has a bullfighting arena leftover from the Roman times, so we wondered past it one night, listening to the cheers and generally agreeing that we didn't want to go in. We may have been to rodeos before, but we weren't about to see a bull—or a person for that matter—get gored.

Outside the arena, we found a street vendor selling sandwiches and so we sat down on the curb outside the arena for dinner.

"Mom, is your sandwich kind of tough?" My jaw was popping from trying to chew.

"Yes. I think we're eating the bull who was killed yesterday. Try not to think about that and just keep chewing."

I did. It was not the best dinner I've ever had, but I was with my mama, and that was good.

And now, back to my want to-do list. I made this list when I was 20, and now that I'm 29, it was somewhat gratifying to check things off here.

Of course it was. I love to-do lists, and I get a sense of accomplishment from checking off "do laundry" or "plan meals for next week."

But there's a bigger sense of accomplishment here. My 20-year-old self was trying very hard to dream big about life after college, life after Wordsworth—and so what a surprise to discover that I've actually done some of these things, even though I completely forgot about this list.

And come next week, I'll be able to cross number 29 off the list. And that will be good.

Kamiah's Want To-do List

  1. visit every continent
  2. spend 21st birthday in Europe
  3. live on the East Coast (Maine, maybe)
  4. learn to sail
  5. hike part of the Appalachian Trail
  6. live in Chicago {Well, if the Chicago suburbs count, although I'm the one judging this list, so I say the suburbs count.}
  7. be an extra in a movie
  8. own a bookstore
  9. take a shower in a waterfall in Fiji
  10. have a song written for me
  11. learn to water ski
  12. drink chocolat in Les Deux Magots
  13. see Tintern Abbey
  14. go to an Olympic gymnastic meet
  15. go parasailing
  16. have kids
  17. take kids on vacations like I used to have
  18. go to a play on Broadway
  19. see the Studio of the South
  20. have a library with walls of books
  21. see the Holy Land
  22. read to my kids
  23. teach my kids French
  24. hear an opera in Vienna
  25. learn to ballroom dance
  26. own a pug
  27. see the Pyramids
  28. see the Pont du Gard
  29. see the lavender fields in Provence in bloom
  30. go to Van Gogh’s café
  31. work in a library
  32. see a big tennis tournament

take 2: what she taught me {a poem, still}

Based on feedback from my writing class, I did a little revision of the poem I wrote for my grandma. The comments fell into two categories:
  • I wish there was more smell in here. You cover the other senses, but what does the high school smell like? What does your kitchen smell like when you're making a tater tot casserole?
  • I don't know what a tater tot casserole is.

Oh, you poor, casserole-deprived people, you who have never tasted the culinary delight that is a tater tot casserole.

I'm beginning to think that this casserole is a particular creation of Iowa because here in Illinois, just one state over, I get blank stares. I get: "All I see in my head is a casserole dish of tater tots. Is that it?"

But back home in Iowa, tater tot casserole is a staple of potlucks and I don't just mean church potlucks. At my high school, we had an athletic banquet at the end of every year. This was when the varsity letters and pins were handed out, and it started with a potluck.

At the banquet, there was an entire section of tater tot casseroles, just as there was a section of desserts. And no one seemed to care or be embarrassed that they'd brought the same dish as someone else: more casserole for everyone!

If you've never had a tater tot casserole, please let me know. I'll make one for you, should you live close enough for this. If you don't, I'll send you the recipe, and you can have a taste of Iowa, right in your kitchen.

And now, my poem revision—I read this last Saturday at my grandma's birthday party, and it seemed to go well. Grandma liked it; that's all I care about.

{You can read the original version here.}


What She Taught Me
for Grandma Callahan

I pull the tater tot casserole out of the oven.
My kitchen smells like home.

Home, home in the cornfields,
where seldom a casserole doesn’t use a can
of cream of mushroom soup.

I breathe in home,
and wipe my hands on a pink gingham apron.

Something in my movement,
a certain slope of the shoulders,
reminds me of her,
and I wonder:
did she pass down her gestures,
as well as her brown hair,
in the family DNA?

The beginning of an answer comes to me:
I see her in the cafeteria at the old high school,
pulling a casserole out of the oven.

It's the day of the Annual Craft Fair,
and just down the hall,
tables of quilts
handpainted “Welcome to Our Home” signs
fill the gymnasium.

And there she is,
rhinestone Jesus pin on her sweater,
smiling at everyone
everyone who passes through the cafeteria.

In this one quick glance,
I can see everything
everything she passed down to me.

She taught me
to be involved:
an Annual Craft Fair doesn't organize itself.

She taught me
to serve the community:
do unto others, whether they need food or time.

She taught me
to love God:
you can do that by loving whoever He puts around you.

I learned to:
be willing
be prepared

to work hard

to laugh.

She passed down to me
how to make this life delicious


how to make this delicious tater tot casserole
that I have just pulled out of the oven.

28 June 2011

the poetry home repair manual

I'm reading this book right now by Ted Kooser called The Poetry Home Repair Manual. It has a picture of a toolbox on the front, which serves to remind me that poetry should be a practical thing, built on a solid framework that people can relate to.

At least that's what I go for in my poetry. I know there are other kinds of poetry. The kind where you get to the end and say, "You must be much deeper than me, dear poet, because I understood about three words in there, and one of them was I."

But then I think of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, that lengthy poem by TS Eliot that I tripped into in 8th grade and immediately adored. I didn't understand much of that poem then—I understand a modicum more now and I think I will always be re-reading it to find new layers—but the flow of the language entranced me.

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.


Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.


For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

I didn't even drink coffee in 8th grade, but I read that line and knew it was right. I heard in it: the world is one empty social obligation after another.

Oh my. Such drama and such falsehood. My social obligations at that age amounted to showing up to school on time, doing my homework, participating in a sport, and going to youth group. How empty! How vain! How unfulfilling! How my life was going nowhere!

But I was 14, remember, and at 14, you have perfected world-weariness, an ennui with all you find around you, even though, in coffee spoon terms, you are still in the womb.

So Prufrock goes against everything I go for in my own poetry.

It's dense.

You have to be very well-read to catch all the references, these asides that are practically inside jokes for the literary elite.

There's this thing in Latin at the very beginning, for Heaven's sake.

But I still love it. I read Prufrock, and I am somewhere else. I am someone else. I am in someone else's head, and it turns out he has the same ponderings about the world as I do, as we all do: Am I special? Where do I fit in? What am I doing with my life? Am I significant to anyone else?

And TS Eliot managed to convey all of that in this lyrical, flowing style—in this poem that, if it were a house, would be a country estate in Berkshire, complete with a butler and staff of 40.

That's what good poetry, good writing, should do. No, I don't mean it should imitate a country estate, or even a shack in the country. Good writing should help you connect with the universal.

We all find ourselves in this world, and what does that mean? Good writing helps you start to put your finger on it, whether that good writing comes wrapped in Prufrock or in Ted Kooser.

Whether it's practical and creates an image you can relate to—driving through traffic, say—or whether it's symbolic and creates a feeling you can relate to.

That's what good writing does, and that is why I keep reading. And writing.

27 June 2011

my international driving permit

"No! Less smiling!"

It was 7:45 in the morning, and I was being chastised about my smile in Walgreen's. Saleem was trying to take my picture for my International Driving Permit, and I did what I always do when a camera is turned on me: I smiled like it's the final play of the Homecoming game and my smile and cheerleading skirt is the only thing that will guarantee us a win.

More than a decade after my last fight song dance {Go get 'em, Grayhounds! Come on and fight with all your might!}, I still have some lingering remnants of a cheerleader in me, these automatic responses that will not go away.

One. When someone says, "Ready?" I think in my head—and sometimes say out loud—"Ok!" That was the beginning of every cheer, followed by this resounding, all-squad thigh smack. To reinforce the readiness, ok?

Two. I have the urge to do spirit fingers at every kick-off, even if it's just on TV and even if I'm just walking past the TV and not really watching the game. I still have to will my fingers to not wiggle, to not do that small-scale sparkle of a dance that brings good luck.

Three. I smile when a camera is turned on me. Big. Showing the teeth. Crinkle the eyes. Let them know you're happy. Smile.

In other word, cheerleading made getting my International Driving Permit a process this morning.

I'd stopped by Walgreen's on my way to work to get some passport-sized pictures to take to AAA, where I'd get my Permit. I'm going to France next week, and for the first time ever, I'll be driving there.

When I read in my guidebook that it's strongly recommended—but not required—to have an International Driving Permit, I started planning immediately for how I would fit this into my pre-France week.

You see, I live by the motto: Better safe than sorry.

And I wanted to avoid this scenario {translated from the French for all you non-Francophiles}:
Moi: I have the driver's license. License of driver—of driving. How do you say that? Um...I can drive the car in the United States. See?

{Please note: I translated my part in this imaginary conversation that I just made up into broken English. Because I'm sure my "I swear I used to speak French relatively well" French will go through some cranky, non-grammatical adjustments next week.}

French Person Working at the Car Rental Agency: Yes, but mademoiselle, your driver's license is in English. And this is France, land of pastries and intense pride in the language. Why should we accept your American driver's license and reward you with a car?

Moi: But there's a word that is a little looking French on there! Illinois! A little like French, no? Is that enough?

French: That is not at all like French.

Moi: {muttered} You're not at all like French.

French: Pardon? Mademoiselle, may I remind you that when you lived here {Side note: This French person has become omniscient, which is kind of frightening, but if you've ever talked to a French person working at a store or a ticket window, you'll know that they have the ability to appear omniscient and just in general, more in the know than you.}...May I remind you that we made you fill out 37 forms, just to get a bank account?

That you had to bring your passport and visa to get a cell phone?

That to run a half-marathon in Paris, we made you get a signed doctor's certificate swearing that you were in good health?

That to end your cell phone contract, you had to send proof that you were, in fact, no longer living in France—and that proof had to be a job offer letter, translated into French? {And we know what you did: we know you had your father "offer" you a job at his accounting firm and that you then translated it, simplifying the language where you needed to. We know this.}

What, in your experience with la belle France, has led you to believe that we will give you a rental car, simply because you reserved it and you're smiling your big American smile in your driver's license from Illinois?

Moi: Le sigh. I remember.

With that possibility in mind, I went to get an International Driving Permit.

In France I live by the motto: Be prepared for bureaucracy. And charm. And a beautiful way of life. And days that you don't want to end. But also: for the bureaucracy.

At 7:45 this morning, I was told to smile without showing my teeth. I actually had to cover my mouth with my hand and look away from Saleem—standing there with his camera—for a minute to actually do this, this no-teeth smile.

When I looked back at him, he said, "No!"

And then he walked up and fixed my hair. This 50ish man from India {he called it the "sub-continent" and I suddenly felt like I was in The Secret Garden} thought my side-swept bangs needed a little help.

He said, "You need to show more forehead. They like that, the government people. You need to be more serious and have more forehead."

This guy could be working the Glamor Shots booth at the mall.

I covered my mouth again, looked away, tried to expand my forehead, then stared into the camera with this prim smile that I imagined was used at afternoon teas on the sub-continent during the British Raj.

I tried to communicate to the camera: Dear French person working the counter at the rental agent, please give me a car. I want to see more of your country and maybe even speak my broken French with people in small towns way off the main roads.

I think it worked.

Or at least it worked for Saleem, who told me afterwards that I took a very nice picture and that I should enjoy myself in France because I seem like a nice girl who deserves a nice trip.

25 June 2011

41 days: an update

41! 41! 41!

I got two more followers, thanks to my somewhat whiny plea. {Please like me. Please.}

Note to self: Whining works. Do it more.

Note to self #2: First of all, you probably shouldn't call it "Note to self #2." Then it's like you have two selves, and people will start to think you're crazy. Or they'll start to wonder which of you is writing or talking to them. Maybe go for "#2 Note to self" next time, self #2.

Second of all, now you have to follow through and post for 41 business days.

I solemnly swear to you, my 41 followers, that it won't be 41 days of, "Hey, so, um...what to say? Well, I had this really good salad today for lunch. Peaches, mozzarella, and basil. Yummy. You should try it. Byeeee!"

If it ever gets to that point, please unfollow me. Heck, if I could, I would unfollow me at that point, but that sounds tricky. It also makes me sound like I have two selves, which as discussed above, I don't.

I also solemnly point out that I'm going on vacation to France in a week. So those business days may not exactly be consecutive, but let's face it: being in France for nine days will give me more than 41 days of material.

The light! The language! Me trying to speak the language! The trains! The wine! The food! The connecting with my French self!

Finally, I had this conversation with my mother last night:
Mama: You don't know where they got the gold?
Me: Who got gold? Did we get gold? Is there a treasure?
Mama: The Israelites. You really don't remember where they got the gold?
Me: Oh, the Bible. You're talking about my desperate plea post, aren't you? See, I was confused because just two seconds ago, we were talking about family news stuff. And then you mentioned gold. You can see how it makes sense that I jumped to the conclusion that our family had found a buried treasure.
Mama: Yes, I'm talking about how the Egyptians gave the Israelites gold on their way out of the country. You don't remember that?
Me: Well, now, yes. But it'd probably be more helpful if you re-told this Bible story using a felt board and felt people and felt pieces of gold. That's how I learned all my Bible lessons back in the day.
Mama: But not this one. {Look of consternation about my Bible knowledge.}
Me: Apparently not. {Look of shame, with a side glance to my sister, who most likely remembers this part of the story because she was the queen of Bible quiz.}

So to set the record straight:
  • I will be posting for 41 business days, with a little break for France. We all need more little breaks for France.
  • I do not have two selves.
  • The Egyptians gave their gold to the Israelites as they fled, and then the Israelites used that to make a golden calf. I apologize to all my Sunday School teachers for not paying enough attention to the felt board during that lesson.

24 June 2011

40 days: a challenge


I saw that this morning, and I suddenly had a very true—and very obvious—statement run through my head: 39 is close to 40. Like, just 1 away.

Yeah, you can't deny numbers skills like that.

And then this other thought came: 40 is one of those biblical numbers, along with 3, 12, and "more numerous than the stars."

Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tested by Satan.

The Israelites spent 40 years wondering around the desert, waiting to go into the Promised Land once they stopped whining about manna and worshiping golden calves that they'd made from their own jewelry.

{Side note: how much jewelry did they have with them? Wouldn't it need to be a lot to make an idol? How did these former slaves get so much gold? Although I guess the Bible never spells out the size of the cow. It could've been the size of your thumbnail.}

So on the biblical scale of things, 40 is important. And I'd like to be more like a person in the Bible. I mean, I'd like to be more like Jesus and all, but I'd also just like to do something that involves the number 40. Seems very holy.

And that's why I'd like to get 40 followers. I've already bypassed 3 and 12, and I think "more numerous than the stars" is a little too lofty for me.

So I've got my Bible-sized goal, but I need you—really, just one of you, as my awesome math skills proved before—to help.

And what do you get for this, for helping me?

I don't know if this is a benefit {um, I hope you see it as one}, but I decided that when I get 40 followers, I'll commit to posting every day for 40 business days.

Business days, yes. I know I sound like UPS, but I need to cut myself some slack. And I figure that since I'm a business person, I can use the phrase business days and get away with it.

So you, person who's been lurking, reading my blog but not following, I'm talking to you: Please help me be like a person in the Bible and do something related to the number 40.

{And if a bunch of you lurkers decide to follow me, I'll post for that many more business days. So if I get 45 followers from this, 45 days it is for me, even though that's not biblical.}

I do love a good self-proclaimed challenge, especially one that involves:
  1. the Bible
  2. the ability to use the word "lurkers"
  3. a chance to show off my math skills
  4. writing more, even if it's just snippets that came to me one morning
  5. the number 40
  6. business days
  7. berating people I know—or don't know—into proving how much they love me

23 June 2011

how i know it's summer

Sauteed zucchini.


Eating outside.

It's summer, aka, my least favorite season.

The humidity.

The sweating {enough to wring out a shirt and have it drip-drip-drip} on an easy run at 6am.

This year, I will conquer my dislike of summer by:
eating lots of zucchini and basil.
With iced tea or maybe I will learn how to make mojitos.

Yes, that sounds like a worthy summer goal.

22 June 2011

what she taught me {a poem}

My grandma turned 80 this year, and we're having a big party this weekend for her. Big as in actual invitations were sent out. Big as in it's being held at my dad's hunting club, not at someone's house.

My aunt asked me to write a poem for the occasion, which I'm counting as my first commission. Next stop: being asked to write a poem to commemorate a presidential inauguration, just like Maya Angelou. {I am not calling myself the next Maya Angelou, something that's impossible for many reasons.}

But this poem was hard to write.

Poems, for me, usually squiggle out relatively easily, once I get the idea or image.

With this one, though, I could hear the tone I was going for in my head, but I couldn't get the words to match that.

I think this is because I kept imagining myself reading this at the party and how everyone would ooh and ahhh and cry a little and I would be called the Poet Laureate of Iowa. And then my grandma would say I'd always been her favorite.

I know this is wrong and a bloated image of myself, but sometimes, you just can't help yourself: Your brain tumbles ahead to some theoretical triumph and you think about what you'll say and how you'll react.

Then you remember you haven't yet done anything practical to deserve that triumph. And that you shouldn't do things based on how everyone will be impressed with you {that, actually, is something my grandma taught me}.

Once I stopped imagining the party and my starring role in it {I'm not turning 80, after all}, the poem started to come a little easier.

But I'm still open to feedback here. The party isn't until Saturday, which leaves plenty of time for revisions, should you have any suggestions on...actually no, I won't tell you. If I tell you the sections I'm worried about, that will pre-dispose you.

May as well not try to predict your reaction—and instead, just let you read.


What She Taught Me
for Grandma Callahan

I pull the tater tot casserole out of the oven,
wipe my hands on a pink gingham apron.

Something in my movement,
in a certain slope of the shoulders,
reminds me of her,
and I wonder:
did she pass down her gestures,
as well as her brown hair,
in the family DNA?

As the beginning of an answer,
I see her in the kitchen at the old high school,
pulling a casserole out of the oven.

Just down the hall,
tables of quilts
handpainted “Welcome to Our Home” signs
fill the gymnasium
for the Annual Craft Fair


rhinestone Jesus pin on her sweater,
smiling at everyone
everyone who passes through the cafeteria.

In this one quick glance,
I can see everything
everything she passed down to me.

She taught me
to be involved:
an Annual Craft Fair doesn't organize itself.

She taught me
to serve the community:
do unto others, whether they need food or time.

She taught me
to love God:
you can do that by loving whoever He puts around you.

I learned to:
be willing
be prepared

to work hard

to laugh.

She passed down to me
how to make this life delicious


how to make this delicious tater tot casserole
that I have just pulled out of the oven.

16 June 2011

part II: flowers {a short story}

Part II of my short story, Flowers.

Read Part I. {Plus, if you read that, you can get a little background on why I decided to write this story, and how this story is a celebration of Bloomsday.  If you don't know what that is, you should really click that link for an explanation.}


But outside, even with all its detractions, has fresh air, not this Subway air of mayonnaise and bread. I’d rather be out there, outside.

Because even with the fumes in the strip mall, there is still something of inspiration in the air. Something of change, but I know that the change coming is nothing but winter. The bland brown leaves, the crackly remnants of summer and life, will cascade to the ground, leaving sticks in the sky. Arthritic fingers reaching out from trees, stark against the gray clouds of winter. Gray: the backdrop to frozen life, to life on hold, to life waiting for the next.

There is change coming, and it's winter.

But then. Then there will be spring.

Life warmed-up, life on fast-forward.

But yes, life still waiting for the next, always waiting for the next.

Why am I thinking of spring now? Why, when just last week, I nearly climbed a tree to get closer to the fall? To autumn, I mean, not the capital F fall, like the Fall of Man.

Just last week, I smelled a bonfire as I took a walk after dinner, and I wanted to bite the air. Take in a mouthful to remember that moment, and here I was spitting that mouthful out. Saying: I do not want this anymore. I want what's next. I want spring.

Spring. Flowers. Daffodils. Tulips. Crocuses (croci? Should it be croci? How do you pluralize that?). Lilies. Redbud and magnolia trees in bloom.

All the pretty flowers.

And here I am, back to flowers, back to thinking of flowers.

I will buy them myself (for myself) when I go to Trader Joe's after work. I will buy them for the simple reason that I want beauty, even ephemeral beauty, in my apartment.

Last spring, I watched this show on PBS about tulips in Holland. It was a Saturday night, and I was tired.

You can make fun of me if you want:

15 June 2011

i wrote a short story: flowers

For class this week {I'm taking a writing class: have I mentioned that yet? Well, I am}, I decided to do a short story.

I decided this for several reasons {you can skip all of this and scroll down to the beginning of the story, if you want}:

  • I wanted a challenge. I'm not so good with the fiction, and so I set a goal for myself of writing a short story during this class. So why not get it out of the way early in the semester?
  • I'm inspired by MFK Fisher, that lady I wrote about the other day. The one who writes about Aix-en-Provence just as I want to write about Aix. She has a very charmed-by-life tone, but it's more than charm. It's descriptive and educational and engaging, like you're being taught by someone who knows all the clues and wants you to play the game, too.

    MFK Fisher reminds me of my favorite short story writer, Laurie Colwin. It's that tone: that "come with me for a flight into someone else's rose-colored—but somehow still realistic—mind" tone. I want that kind of tone in my stories, so I decided to practice it here.
  • I already had the beginning of a short story, but I wanted to do more with it. You can read the original here: it's third-person, and I transferred it into first. As someone forever fascinated by the writing process, it's interesting for me to see the similarities and differences in the stories. What stuck in the re-write? Why did that line get to still resonate?

And a few caveats:

  • No, this isn't autobiograpical. There are elements I pulled from my life, yes, because I'm not that good at making stuff up. So here are the true things: I eat at Subway sometimes for lunch {it's just down the road from my office}, I watched the PBS show referenced in here, and I own pink plaid pajama pants.

    I hope this is enough of a teaser for you to want to read this, if only to find out how those three things are related.
  • This is stream-of-consciousness. You know, like Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway or James Joyce in Ulysses. We're talking I typed with my eyes closed for part of this, just let the word fly—and then added nuances in the editing process.

    Bonus Detail: June 16 is Bloomsday, the day literary nerds celebrate Ulysses—a book that takes place entirely in one day {June 16, 1904} and mostly in the mind of one guy, Harold Bloom.  The book is something like 700 pages long and was one of those groundbreaking works that most English majors have to read. Let's pretend I wrote this as a stream-of-conscious homage to Joyce—instead of the reality, which is that I stumbled upon the fact that Bloomsday is coming up after I had started the story.

And now: the story.


I decided to buy the flowers myself. For who would buy them for me?

The thought wasn't even out of my mind, had just danced beyond the cusp of the mushy gray matter, and I realized that I was plagiarizing. No, not plagiarizing. Paraphrasing. I was paraphrasing, in my head and almost without realizing (how can you think a thought without realizing it? Where does the thought come from then?).

Virginia Woolf. “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

A beautiful beginning to a novel, the kind of beginning where you're in the middle of the story before you even know you're reading. If you haven't read Mrs Dalloway, you should.

You should stop reading this story and go read that one, which seems like an unlikely thing for me to recommend, I know. I should want you to stay here and read about me, but that makes me sound so self-centered, so like a girl used to being the center of attention. And I'm not. Not used to that and not the center of attention.

I'm just a girl sitting alone in a Subway on my lunch hour, eating a sandwich and looking outside and wishing I could be sitting there.

But no. No, that isn't possible today, this first day when the air feels like fall instead of Indian summer. When the leaves no long blaze but instead are grayed-out versions of themselves.

And why would I want to be outside this Subway in a strip mall?

Outside, a silver Volvo whizzes by, exhaling fumes of burning money.

Outside, there's one table, a plastic table with a crack in the middle and dirt from generations of slobby diners—I imagine them as slobby, although I can't tell you why. I see people with uncombed hair grinding their elbow grease into the table as they shove in club sandwiches and three meat trios and the occasional vegetarian option.

Outside, there are horns interjecting and brakes arguing with engines and even the cement seems to have a noise. It's the noise of paved-over nature, of unnatural paths leading you on your journey, of hard facts.

(I'm reading too much into that, I know, but once I get Mrs Dalloway in my head, my thoughts tumble out in gymnastic confusion, in profusion. When Mrs Dalloway is in my head, I look for meaning in everything, even in the car horns and cement.)

But outside, even with all its detractions, has fresh air, not this Subway air of mayonnaise and bread. I’d rather be out there, outside.



Yes, I'm stopping there. For now.

You can read Part II here.

12 June 2011

fortune cookie

"This place is notorious for terrible fortune cookies," my friend Sara said one Saturday night as we sat in this dimly-lit Chinese restaurant on Main Street Suburbia.

I probably didn't need to tell you it was a Chinese restaurant, what with the fortune cookie context clue and all, and I probably didn't need to tell you that it was dimly lit.

From my experience, unless a Chinese restaurant is located in a mall food court, it's only half-illuminated.

Why is this? Are the restaurants, normally filled by groups of women and families with children picking the cashews out of the cashew chicken, going for that romantic mood?

Is all of China operating under a partial blackout and so the American restaurants are trying to be authentic?

Because I like Chinese food, I refuse to think about the possibility that the restaurants keep you in the murky dark so you won't be disgusted by the real color of moo goo gai pan.

So there I sat in the half-dark {half-light? Is this revealing something about my optimism?}, full of egg foo yung and with a take-home carton full of egg food yung {so much food: why is there so much food at Chinese restaurants?}.

I reached for the fortune cookie, which I don't actually like. The staleness, the crumbs, the thin glue coating to add a sheen. No one actually thinks fortune cookies are fresh: why bother with the sheen?

I also don't like those games you're supposed to play with fortune cookies. You know, those games where you're supposed to add "in between the sheets" to the end of your fortune and then everyone laughs at the dirtiness of what you're all thinking. Everyone thinking the same thing at the same time, a phenomenon that doesn't often happen.

But after reading a dirty fortune cookie, everyone is thinking about that preposterous proposition, and most everyone is thinking about how full they are, stomachs bulged full with gooey sauce and sticky rice.

I cracked open the fortune cookie, shook off the crumbs, and pulled out the fortune.

I let the cookie clank down on my plate as I read:
You find beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability.

Sara leaned over my shoulder. "What's it say? Isn't it just ridiculous?"

Beauty in ordinary things—no, it wasn't ridiculous.

It also wasn't so much a fortune as a command, and I didn't know how I felt about being bossed around by a slip of paper that until recently had lived in a bad cookie.

But I liked the idea.

I like the idea of finding highlights of pretty on a normal Monday afternoon: in the sun on the office building or in a co-worker's laugh.

I like looking for what draws the eye on a long drive through what other people would call the Middle of Nowhere: have you ever really looked at old barns, or how soybeans look so daring when they're just beginning to grow?

I like finding charm in a typical Chinese restaurant on a typical street in a typical suburb: who you're with in that very particular place creates the charm, you know.

I do this because our lives are full of normal days.

There are highlights, of course:

weddings and
holidays and
early outs from school and
long-weekends in both familiar and unfamiliar places.

But mostly what we live out, day by day, is a string of normal.

Days where nothing is out-of-the-ordinary and where we eat well, talk to people we love, and go to bed on time.

These are days to be thankful for, but if you aren't looking for beauty in ordinary things and ordinary times, then these stretches of normal can feel claustrophobic. Like they're cutting off your blood supply. Like you're sitting in perpetual half-darkness.

I can't live like that.

{I also can't live with one excitement right after the other. Always moving on to the next big thing and superlative topping. That's tiring. That's unsustainable. That's limiting in its grandeur.}

For me to appreciate the extraordinary, I need to enjoy the ordinary.

"No, it's actually a good fortune," I told Sara as I slipped it into my wallet and slipped out of the booth. Out of the restaurant and into the half-light of a late spring dusk.

10 June 2011

hello, aix

"So here is the town, founded more than two thousand years ago by the brash Roman invaders, on much older ruins which still stick up their stones and artifacts. I was as brash a newcomer to it, and yet when I first felt the rhythm of its streets and smelled its ancient smells, and listened at night to the music of its many fountains, I said, "Of course," for I was once more in my own place, an invader of what was already mine."

So says MFK Fisher in Map of Another Town, this quietly poetic love letter to Aix-en-Provence in southern France.

I used to live there, in that town founded by brash invaders, and reading MFK's words, all I can say is: yes.

Yes, that's just how I feel about Aix.

Yes, I wish I'd written that.

Yes, I believe that MFK and I would be best friends, should we ever meet, which could be difficult since she passed away in 1992.

And maybe we wouldn't have been best friends: actually, I'd prefer it if she were my mentor, teaching me the art of enjoying the moment.

How to relish food and conversation and long walks and finding surprises around the everyday corner of life.

How to write about a place that became so much a part of who you are—that simply seeing its name on a map can feel like you're home.

Because that's how I feel about Aix.

I picked up Map of Another Town at the library on Wednesday night, along with an armful of travel books about southern France.

I'm going back. I'm going home. At least to one of my homes, and the travel books are to help me prepare on a practical level.

And MFK is to help me prepare my heart.

Question: Do you have a writer—or writers—who seem to say everything you were thinking? But they say it better? {I feel like that with Laurie Colwin and MFK Fisher and a little bit with Anne Lamott: I read their writing and say, "Why are you stealing my ideas? And how did you manage to write them first? I hate you. And love you."}

Another Question: Do you have a place—or places—like Aix? How do you think that place managed to dig so deeply into you?

A Note about the Questions: You don't have to answer these; I'm just curious. I won't make being my friend or following my blog conditional upon you responding. But it'd be nice to know I'm not alone in my literary crushes. {Subtext: Please help me feel not alone.}

09 June 2011

intricate beauty

Part III of the cadaver lab story.

Read the Rest of the Story

I thought this was going to be the final installment, but it's not. I just wrote to a stopping point, and it turns out I'll need a fourth part to wrap this all together.

This is what I enjoy so much about writing: it's always a surprise what comes out, even though the thoughts are coming from me.


The body is beautiful in its intricacies.

It is not pretty, that word we've cheapened and spread thin to apply to everything from the Homecoming Queen to a sunset. Looking down at the exposed spine on the cadaver, I did not think pretty. I thought: messy.

Yellow fat—the color of a lemon meringue pie—sat just a few millimeters under the skin. The fat, skin, and bones were the only parts I could accurately identify.

Everything else, to my untrained eye, was a mess. Not a bloody mess because of the way the body had been prepared for the lab, but still a mess of squishy tissue.

I stood on a step stool next to the body. This gave me better leverage as I wielded this tool that looked like gardening shears. And wielded is the most accurate word to use: the tool was as long as my arm.

I was using it to bite off pieces of the lamina, this bony structure that protects the spinal cord. Think of it as the roof of the spinal canal; I was doing a little roof job.

Look at that, in two paragraphs, I managed to reduce spine surgery to pruning a topiary or re-doing your roof. It's as if I wasn't even working on a body—but on a fix-it-up project.

That's not how I felt, though, as I stood, practically elbow deep in the body. The deeper I got in the body, the more I thought: the body is beautiful in its intricacies.

A surgeon stood next to me, pointing out what I was seeing, helping my untrained eye hone in on the wonder before me. He was like subtitles for a French film, or a guide through the Dutch Masters wing of the art museum: sometimes, you need help to understand what's so special about what's right in front of you.

"You've got the whole lamina out now, so with just a little more digging, you'll get to the spinal cord. It's under that ligament, so just cut through that...good. And there, there's the spinal cord."

I looked down, and everything in the room stopped. The hammering, the ratcheting, the drilling. The BBQ smell. How I had a stray shock of hair falling from my ponytail, but I didn't want to fix it because my hands were messy with parts of that intricate body.

It all stopped.

I slowly, oh-so-carefully cut open the sac protecting the spinal cord with a small scalpel: no more gardening shears for such delicacy, such cutting into the core of the body.

Angled over sharply, I was inches from the body as I pulled back the sac, revealing the cord, which is really this collection of translucent filaments, long strands swimming in spinal fluid.

I touched the spinal cord, gently rubbed the filaments between my fingers. So thin. So fragile-looking, like one pull could snap the string but of course, the spinal cord is tougher than that.

Holding the spinal cord, I traced the nerves coming off it, nerves peeling away from the cord to go to places like the heart and the fingers, the elbow and the bicep. Those nerves worked their way through the squishy tissue mess, following the path traced for them.

Conduits of movement. Messengers of pain. The wires that keep the body moving.

The body is beautiful in its intricacies.

Because of these thin filaments in my body, I can tell my hand to cut, my arm to wave, my head to nod in agreement. Because of these thin filaments, I can wince when I bite my nail too close to the quick.

I am me partly because of these thin filaments.

And that's when I stopped thinking of the body in front of me as a body.

I pulled back from the spine and saw the whole back. Saw the age spots and the hair. Saw the freckles and the scar on the upper back.

And I thought: You were someone. You were somebody to someone, and you could hug them because of this spinal cord I'm holding.

But then your body broke down and now someone else is left with a broken heart because you're here on the table in this cadaver lab instead of at their dinner table.

08 June 2011

fixing what's broken

Part II of a piece that began in the cadaver lab.


We have this idea that we can fix what's broken.

A broken watch.

A broken record.

A broken mug.

A broken heart: well, now, that's harder to fix.

But we do have this idea that most of the time, we can figure out what's wrong and then we can fix it, or we can get someone to fix it for us.

My grandpa could fix almost anything, including everything I just named, although his tactics for fixing a broken heart were more based on the "laugh and you'll forget your troubles" idea: the quick-fix method that smoothes over, for just a heartbeat, the brokenness.

A jack-of-all-trades—that's what my dad called my grandpa. Back in the years after World War II, my grandpa realized he needed to make some extra money to support his baby booming family {3 kids in 3 years is a boom, that's for sure}.

He went to the watch shop around the corner on Thul Street and told the watchmaker, "Look, I know people have been bringing you a lot of clocks they want fixed, and I know that you'd rather work on watches. Teach me what you know about fixing clocks, and I'll figure out the rest."

And so my grandpa became the clock man of Burlington, Iowa.

By day, he wore a suit and tie and carried a briefcase to his job at the National Research Bureau. At night, he wore loupes—magnifying glasses that brought into sharp focus the cogs and wheels—and he'd open clocks.

Cuckoo clocks and grandfather clocks and mantel clocks: he would figure out what was broken, what had stopped time.

In an era of can-do gumption—post-World War II—and in a country that sometimes misguidedly thinks it can fix the world, my grandpa sat, hunched over his work table in the basement, fixing anything and everything, including time.

The example of my grandpa only perpetuates the idea that we can completely fix what's broken. We think that if we can fix time, as my grandpa did, then we can fix anything, and this belief—this hubris, really—extends to our bodies.

They break down, whether slowly or quickly, and it came to me that first time in a cadaver lab that all the spine surgeons were there to learn how to fix what was broken.

On the bodies, they were supposed to insert screws and rods, these internal supports, in an effort to fix the broken body, the body causing pain, the body that wasn't working right.

And that's admirable. And it usually works.

But the first time I looked into a body, the spine exposed from neck down, muscles pulled back and ligaments stripped, I thought: 'Who are we, we who were made just a little lower than the heavenly beings, that we should think we can fix this?'


And I'll stop there for now. You may still be thinking, 'Good Lord, Kamiah, just where do you think you're going with this?'

But that's okay. I have an idea, and I'll give you a hint: it involves the spinal cord and me cutting into it.

07 June 2011

in the cadaver lab

This is the beginning a piece for my writing class I'm taking this summer. Just the intro here, and after reading this, you may think, 'Good Lord, Kamiah, just where do you think you're going with this?'

Come back tomorrow and find out...!


It isn't so much the smell of a cadaver lab that gets me, and there's a simple reason why: it quite often smells like a barbecue. I hope this isn't too much detail for you, but if it is, you should probably skip ahead.

The cadaver labs I've been to—all focused on spine surgery because my company runs trainings for spine surgeons—have all smelled like a summertime cookout. Not so much the smell of fresh cut grass baking in the humidity or the smell of mosquito repellent: those are cookout smells, too, but I mean the smell of the meat on the grill.

A hamburger sizzling away, fat dripping on the coals, smells a lot like a cadaver lab, and I should probably stop here before you think I'm a cannibal. I am not a cannibal, which is an idea I never thought I'd need to stress forcefully, but here I am doing it again: I am not a cannibal.

Also, you may never want to invite me to a barbecue after this.

No, it isn't the smell of a cadaver lab that gets me; it's the noise.

The spine surgery labs I've been to are as noisy as a kitchen remodel.

And while the kitchen is under construction, the family is grilling all its meals—all involving meat—out on the patio: there, now you can, in intense detail, envision a cadaver lab.

Such drilling and pounding and ratcheting and sawing, but the noise that gets me the most is the hammering. Tap-tap-tap-tap with these mallets that are, perhaps, better suited to staking down a tent so that it doesn't blow away with you in it during a thunderstorm.

The first time I stepped in a cadaver lab and heard this hammering, I thought, 'Is this some sort of combo training? Is it for surgeons who want to learn how to take out an intervertebral disc and how to build a shed, all in the same afternoon?'

And then I thought, after realizing that surgeons would probably just hire someone to build a shed for them, 'Is something broken in this room? Did some sort of load-bearing wall crack or did a pipe rupture, necessitating a handyman visit?'

But no. That was just the sound of spine surgery, and once I got used to the hammering and the sawing—and once I pushed down my inexplicable desire for a hamburger—it hit me that something was broken in the room.

The bodies.

06 June 2011

i am no icarus {a poem}

My shadow leads me, but only when I run
away from the sun.
I do not think that is symbolic—
turning away from the light and all that.

On an early morning run, I go west
for practical reasons:
The rising sun hurts my eyes.
I do not like to squint.

My shadow leads me,
down the road, the path,
the way.

Show me the way I should go, O Lord,
for I have put my trust in you.

Not in this dark shadow, this darkened light,
this darkness stretching
before me.

01 June 2011

to-do: manage to-do list

When my dad called to tell us that my grandpa had passed away, had not made it through the night up at the Mayo Clinic, I sat my mother down and said, "We need to make a to-do list."

I looked around my parents' house in Iowa for paper—since they've remodeled the living room, I don't always know where to find these necessities—and all I could find were small scratchpads. No, that would not do. We needed more room than a small scrap would allow.

I pulled paper out of the printer and went to work. Who to contact. What pictures to pull together for the memorial slideshow. Everything we needed to get from Sunnybrook, his assisted living home. What to do to get the house ready for guests.

Over the weekend, the list grew. It expanded to those little scraps of paper because I started to grab whatever was handy when a new list came to mind. Must not lose track of details.


Grocery shopping.

Where everyone would sleep in my parents' house.

How many people would be coming to the dinner after the visitation and how many would come to the lunch after the funeral. {I've said the word funeral so much in the past few days that it's started to sound like a nonsense word, a made-up word, which I guess all words are at their core. They're all just scratches we use to try to make sense of what has happened.}

Timing of those meals: when should the lasagna go in and when should we pull the garlic bread out?

What bowl we should serve the salad in and a list of all the serving utensils we would need.

List upon list. Detail upon detail.

You may be thinking: were you making all these lists to avoid facing the reality of the situation? To avoid thinking about how your grandpa had just died? To avoid the emotion?

Maybe you aren't thinking that, but I did, a little bit. When your reaction to your grandpa's death is sadness and hurt mixed with a to-do list, you think that.

There's irony in this, but I don't care: I even made processing Grandpa's passing {at least the initial processing—there's always more processing to do} a to-do list item. I told myself to journal, which is the best way I know to process and feel and understand why I'm feeling what I am. Why I felt so compelled to make so many to-do lists.

And here is what I've come up with.

I did it because it helped bring control to an uncontrolled situation.

I did it because I didn't want to miss any details.

I did it because that's the way my mind works.

I did it because I wanted to be helpful.

I did it because I come from a very practical family.

And I did it because I loved my grandpa and I wanted to make sure that the family had everything they needed to be able to celebrate his life, including good meals and clean, comfortable beds to rest in.

Some of these to-do lists are now in my wallet, the ones written on scraps of paper when the idea and moment struck. I'll carry them for awhile, perhaps longer than I need to, but do you know what I found when I went through the boxes of family records and pictures over the weekend?

My great-great-grandfather, John Walker, had a wallet stuffed full of scraps of paper. I went through it, unfolding the papers carefully because I was scared that one touch would rip apart my family history, and I found receipts for farm equipment and services rendered. The typical stuff of a wallet—at least the wallet of a man farming in Iowa in the late 1800s.

But I also found lists. What the oats sold for. How many hogs he had at a certain point. When to plant and when to reap {there is a time for everything}. Who bought the corn. What tools needed mending.

I told you I come from a very practical family: lists are in our blood.


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