29 July 2011

spontaneity and winging it are not my strengths {running of the bulls, part III}

This is the continuation of my story about going to the running of the bulls in Pamplona with my friend Amie. You may be confused because nothing in this section is about the actual running.

You should probably read part I and part II—and then wait in anticipation for part IV because that might have some bulls in it.


I started planning.

Ran cost comparisons of doing point-to-point train tickets or getting a train pass.

Researched hotels on Ile de Ré, this little island off the Atlantic coast of France I’ve wanted to go to for years, ever since I learned that they dress up their donkeys in pants {that’s a story for another time}.

Realized that it would be nigh-on-impossible to get a hotel room in Pamplona.

I emailed Amie to mention this slight complication, and she wrote back, “Yes, in my readings, the hotels in Pamplona will be very, very full. Booked a year in advance. At 8am the Running of the Bulls takes place, so we would need to be there the night before as no train arrives that early. They say many people sleep outside which I am okay with, but I know most people would not be. How do you feel about that?”

How do I feel about that? I feel nervous, not okay, anxious, scared, the opposite of good, and like I want to bit all my nails down to the quick. That is how I feel about arriving late at night in an unknown town where they speak a language not known to me.

Spontaneity and winging it are not my strengths. Making labeled file folders, schedules, and binders filled with sheet protector-encased notes are. I thank my father for these traits, especially when I apply them to planning vacations.

I grew up taking three-week long camping trips out West every summer. Through the long, cold, dark months of tax season my accountant father would look forward to nights spent under the starry Utah sky. He’d plot our route through the backcountry, read up on hikes to take, and tell my sister and me that every child in America would rather backpack through a redrock canyon than go to Disney World.

While my dad obviously wasn’t gifted in interpreting the wants of the Millennial generation, he was (and still is) a very detailed, very skilled planner. His strength lies in the ability to make a plan not seem like a schedule.

Think of tour groups at the Grand Canyon: they file off the bus, blinking blankly at the bright sun, cameras dangling from their necks, and a guide sweeps them over to a viewpoint.

“Okay, here we have the Grand Canyon, a beautiful hole in the ground. Look at all the colors—makes for a great picture! You have 10 minutes here, and then it’s back on the bus because we have lunch reservations at this place where you get to eat inside a real Indian teepee. But we’re running behind schedule, so go, go, go—take your pictures! Make memories!”

That’s a schedule, and it’s no fun. It feels like you’re perpetually five minutes late and always leaves you wishing for more time and like you just missed out on something that could’ve been really cool, the kind of thing that could’ve made it into your one-minute summary of your vacation.

When travelling, my dad never makes me feel like we’re on a schedule—but I know there’s a plan. My dad taught me that if you can figure out in advance where you’re going to be sleeping, then you can enjoy every day more: you know you won’t be homeless come that night.

This not-being-homeless thing is key to my calmness level on vacations. I’ve also learned that it helps me to research ahead of time what I want to see or do in the area; then when I get there, I can just jump right in.

So you see, I don’t demand an hour-by-hour itinerary. I don’t need to have every meal figured out. I don’t even need to know what precisely I’ll be doing every day.

I just like to feel prepared. And I like to make binders. Binders are like my love language for travelling. As I pull together a trip, I can see in my binder so much to anticipate.

So there’s really why I like planning: because it helps me anticipate. It stretches out the fun of vacation, but of course this kind of fun only works if you actually like making binders.

28 July 2011

spur of the moment can work {running of the bulls, part II}

This whole trip to France and Spain had been Amie’s idea. She’s a flight attendant for United, which means she has travel benefits and can fly free anywhere—she just has to fly stand-by. This “I’m never sure if I’m going to make it on the plane” thing works well for Amie, who is the most spur of the moment person I’ve ever met.

For example, the first time we met was in Barcelona in 2003. Her younger sister, Katie, and I were studying together in Aix-en-Provence, France, and the two of us had planned a trip through Spain for our winter break. Amie was based in Paris then, so she used those travel privileges and hopped a flight down.

“Kate, I have the most amazing idea: let’s go to Morocco.” I remember this as the first thing out of her mouth after we were introduced—after we got all of those “So nice to meet you” pleasantries out of the way.

“Morocco?!? That’s awesome! Kamiah, do you want to come?”

Here are the things that went through my head before I answered:
  • Can you just pop over to Africa? Don’t you need some kind of paperwork?
  • What about our hostel reservations in Madrid?
  • What about my strong desire to eat churros, that fried Spanish breakfast treat, every day for the next five days?
But Katie and Amie were already discussing the ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar and where to stay and how amazing it would be to go to Morocco. Just think! Casablanca! Spice markets! Camels! A new continent!

And before I knew it, I couldn’t say no. I was sucked into their enthusiasm and their belief that it would all work out—and you know, it did.

Sure there were some anxiety-producing moments, such as when Amie, with her big American grin and ability to strike up a conversation with anyone, managed to get us suckered into a personal tour of Tangiers with a man who had seven teeth. He kept taking us to shops owned by his cousins (so many cousins!), including a rug shop where we were ushered into a private viewing room. The cousin served us mint tea as hand-woven rug after hand-woven—in intricate designs of reds and blues and green—were rolled out in front of us.

I turned to Amie, “How did I go from a girl with a plan to eat churros every day to someone drinking mint tea—this tea could be drugged; did you consider that it could be drugged? And why do I suddenly want to pay $300 for a rug? I live in a dorm!”

Amie whispered back, “Just drink the tea! We can’t refuse their hospitality, so drink!”

Now, eight years later, Amie and I laugh about that trip, and she holds it up to me as proof that things always do work out. We stayed in a four star hotel. We bought pottery in the market. I had lamb couscous for the first time, and I’ve been trying to re-create the recipe ever since.

Spur of the moment can work. I remembered this Moroccan lesson when Amie called me in late May. “Kamiah, I have the most amazing idea. I’ve been thinking about going to Provence in early July to see the lavender in bloom. And I thought, while I’m so close, I could swing into Spain and see the running of the bulls in Pamplona. You should come!”

France! Recently, my Francophile heart had been overrun with French nostalgia and memories from when I had lived there. Lost in everyday life in the Chicago suburbs, I dreamed of pain au chocolat, tiny cups of espresso in cafes on flower-lined streets, and even of French television with its plethora of political talk shows.

Before I knew it, I’d told Amie I would come. To France. In a month.

27 July 2011

thank heavens i'm a grown-up {running of the bulls, part I}

The sun wasn't up yet, and Amie and I were stepping over the sleeping bodies in the street.

"And this is where you wanted to sleep last night? On the street? With these drunk people? Where it smells like alcohol and a porta-potty that's never been cleaned?" I asked Amie, my voice going higher with every question.

I tried hard to not breathe deeply—not wanting to bring the smell too far into my lungs—and this lack of air may have made my voice higher.

Our of the corner of my eye, I saw a couple near a tree doing something I really didn't want to take a closer look at.

Not that I could divert my attention from watching where I was walking: one misplaced step, and I would be in glass shards. Or a puddle of red wine. Or the chunky remains of someone's dinner that had decided to come back up and out and onto the cobblestoned street of Pamplona, Spain.

Or I could step on someone's face, someone who was sleeping in the streets.

I'd read in my guidebook that during the running of the bulls festival {aka, the festival of San Fermin, although most people don't think about the saint so much as about the bulls}, people who didn't have hotel reservations slept outside in the main square of Pamplona.

I'd imagined a tidy camp, for reasons that defy logic since it was a festival made famous by Hemingway and it was in Spain, known for its late night partying.

In my idyllic vision of Pamplona, I'd conjured up people clumped in groups of 3 or 6, sleeping bags rolled out in the square, and maybe a picnic spread of prosciutto and cheese and a just-slightly-festive amount of red wine.

In short, before coming to Pamplona, I had imagined the Disney version of this little sleepover-in-the-square that my book described.

But the thing is, I didn't even want the Disney version of this, let alone the reality of inhibition-free people taking over the streets and spilling red wine on each other.

I figured that people sleeping on the streets fell into a few categories:
  • Those Who Did Not Plan Ahead
  • Those Here for the Party
  • Those Who Are Backpacking Around Europe
{In some instances, people can fall into multiple categories.}

I do not, at present, fall into any of those categories, although I did at one point belong to the Those Who Are Backpacking Around Europe group. Now I'm in the Thank Heavens I'm a Grown-up and Can Afford a Hotel and Will Never Have to Stay in a Hostel Again group.

I have my fair share of stories of dirty beds and drunk roommates and smelly bathrooms that are a curious mix of fried fish, body odor, marijuana, and soap; it's time to let the next generation gather their own crazy stories about hostels where the beds are actually hammocks and there are 76 of you in a room made for 3.

Given my current Thank Heavens I'm a Grown-up group, you can see why I didn't want to join the throngs in Pamplona for all all-night party.

{I'm also, by the way, part of the I Go to Bed at 10pm and Read for a Few Minutes Before Going to Sleep group. And maybe now you want to put me in the I'm Old Before My Time group.}

Amie, though—Amie had a different idea about Pamplona.


And I'll tell you more about that idea tomorrow.

26 July 2011

the state of the economy

Debt ceiling, debt ceiling, debt ceiling.

Every time I turn on NPR or walk by the TV at the gym or glance at the newspaper, those words attack me.

And the more I hear, the more frustrated I get.

The political grandstanding on both sides, and how everyone is claiming to be for the American people, for the little man, for the middle class.

But if you pay attention to what the American people are saying, you'll hear more about the NFL deal and the Netflix price increase than about the debt ceiling. What does that mean about us as a politically-engaged country? I don't know the answer to that.

The "No way, it's their fault" finger pointing. This tactic didn't work very well on the playground, so I'm not sure how well it'll work in Congress. We've all been on the playground, whether we were the bullies, the ones being teased, one of the pretty girls, or the kids nobody paid attention to. We've all learned that finger pointing rarely gets you anywhere, and it never feels good afterward.

The discussion of "How will this impact our standing in the world?" Here's what I don't get: it's not as if we've been hiding the fact that we have a $14 trillion debt and bills we won't be able to pay; come August 2, that won't be a surprise that suddenly causes markets to distrust us.

To me, it seems that the inability to make a decision would hurt our standing more, but hey, I'm no politician or pundit. I'm just a girl trying to understand why this debt ceiling thing is still news—as opposed to a passing story of "And Congress today approved a bill to raise America's debt ceiling to a bajillion dollars. Because they're pretty sure we'll never owe that much money, if anyone can figure out how much that is."

The talk of how we're coming up on an election year, so of course that's why Congress is scared to do anything.

All the noise, noise, noise, noise.

So in the midst of this debt ceiling talk, I've done what I normally do when I get frustrated: I've turned to poetry. I read this poem last night: "The State of the Economy."

Now here is a poem that discusses paycheck-to-paycheck life in America, the kind of life our politicians always say they understand. In this poem are the kinds of people our politicians always say they represent, always say they're fighting for.

But then they go and have a press conference about how they aren't getting their way—ostensibly couched as the way that helps these paycheck-to-paycheck people.

They say they're fighting the good fight for the American people, but even in front of their backdrop of the American flag, they sound decidedly out of touch with America.

I'm not overly political. But today I'm frustrated with politics, and in moments like these, I'm glad I can turn to poetry.

The State of the Economy
Louis Jenkins

There might be some change on top of the dresser at the
back, and we should check the washer and the dryer. Check
under the floor mats of the car. The couch cushions. I have
some books and CDs I could sell, and there are a couple big
bags of aluminum cans in the basement, only trouble is that
there isn't enough gas in the car to get around the block. I'm
expecting a check sometime next week, which, if we are careful,
will get us through to payday. In the meantime with your one—
dollar rebate check and a few coins we have enough to walk to
the store and buy a quart of milk and a newspaper. On second
thought, forget the newspaper.

25 July 2011

reunited and it feels so good

Over the weekend, I drove home to Iowa listening to the end of The Worst Hard Time, this book about the Dust Bowl that I could talk about for 12 hours straight.

So much learning!

Such a contrast to drive through the elephant's-eye-high cornfields as the book described scorched earth, blizzards that fell as mud from all the dust in the sky, and 36 days in a row when the temperature went above 100. {Note to self: do not complain about heat again. God may smite you with a dust bowl.}

I should move on from the book—before this turns into an ode to dust and that Woody Guthrie song "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You."

{Note to self: write an ode like that.}

I was going home to Iowa to pick up baby pug, who had been staying at my parents' house while I was on vacation in France. This is, of course, a completely fair trade: Iowa for France.

It's fair when one of you is a pug.

I was worried that Miss Daisy might a1a) not remember me, or b2b) be mad at me for leaving her in Iowa while I gallivanted off to the land of pastries and good butter. {I don't know if pugs have discerning enough tastebuds to know good butter, but in my mind, she was going to be mad at me about the butter, not about the abandonment thing.}

I called my mama the other night to check on baby pug. They had just gotten home from vacation—

Yes, they were on vacation, too. You're probably wondering, "Did you leave Miss Daisy to fend for herself? Perhaps by using her little pug legs and jumping up to eat the ears of elephant's-eye-high corn?"

And to that I say, "Now that's just ridiculous. First of all, my parents live in town where there are no cornfields. Second of all, I'm sure their two pugs would help her out and they could build a pug pyramid to get the corn, should they find any stalks in town, which, as mentioned before, is unlikely."

My parents have a pug sitter from the vet come to stay with their puggies when they go on vacation, so I figured that Miss Daisy would be in good hands. Perhaps more capable hands than my hands. I pretty much figured it'd be like a pug spa for Miss Daisy.

So I called my mama to check on baby pug, and she said, "Do you want to talk to her?"

Now, I may be one to think that my pug is going to be mad at me for butter.

And I may talk to her out loud while we're on walks.

And I may try to explain to her why she can't bark at every little noise, using all my powers of logic and expression.

Doing all of that is one thing; talking to your pug on the phone is another thing entirely.

It wasn't much of conversation. Obviously. She mostly tried to breathe as a form of communication.

My mama said she licked the phone, which cemented in my mind a reason why you should never let a pug talk on the phone, besides the fact that pugs can't talk to begin with.

But now Miss Daisy and I are reunited and yes, it feels so good.

When we got home to Glen Ellyn yesterday, she ran to every corner in the apartment, making sure it was just as she remembered.

My bed! My food bowl! My toys! My treats!

And yes, I am, once again, projecting emotions on to Miss Daisy.

You see, that's how I feel when I come home, whether I've been gone a weekend or a week.

Of course, I don't get excited about my food bowl, mostly because I have multiple food bowls that I call "dishes," but I do have this overwhelming sense of relief when I step inside my apartment.

My bed! My books! My multiple DVDs of The Mary Tyler Moore Show! My flowers! My time!

I may not run around and sniff everything—even though I live alone, even I know that would be weird—but I do smile as I settle into my reading nook to catch up on the newspaper.

And that is exactly what Miss Daisy did in her own pug way: after calming down, she went straight for her favorite spot on the couch, circled around 10 times, then plopped down with a pug smile.

She was home. And it feels so good to have a place, a space to call home, where you know you belong.

22 July 2011

book report lessons

Confession about the last two days' posts: they were pulled from a book report I did for my writing class.

A book report! When was the last time you did one of those?

Don't you kind of want to do one now?

Although the more grown-up word for it is: book review. Then you sound slightly knowledgeable and like maybe the New Yorker is going to come to your door.

So here is part 2 of my book report/book review: in which I describe what I learned from the book.

{Read part 1 here.}


From Jancee Dunn's family-centered memoir Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?, I learned several things.

Culling from Your Life Is Entirely Appropriate, But People May Start to Get Nervous Around You
My brother-in-law once said to me, after I'd rhapsodized about fall and the transition into winter, “You're going to blog about this, aren't you?” {You can read the resulting blog post, if you want.}

It wasn't in a complimentary tone, but it showed me that other people are aware that I'm watching them and watching my life for stuff I could write about. Apparently, I'm not sneaky enough about it.

You have to do this; it's kind of the point of a memoir or of my particular form of creative non-fiction—the kind that tells daily life stories with a zany spin. You need to pay attention because even the smallest events can be worked into essays.

Jancee Dunn does this very well: she blends multiple stories so well that it’s not until you get to the end, after following all these strings, that you realize they do go together and demonstrate a bigger lesson that the individual stories by themselves could.

Case in point: Chapter 12, “Don’t Be Weird.”

The main point is that Jancee is sometimes socially awkward, so she meshes all these little vignettes of dinner parties and speaking without thinking. She jumps to how because she’s a writer, she’s in her own head all day, so interacting with the outside world can be challenging—and her husband’s reaction to that.

There’s a story of the two of them eavesdropping on other people in a café {that’s not weird, right? Besides, if I'm making people I know nervous by eavesdropping on them, don't I have the right to make other people nervous, people I don't know? That just seems fair.}. There's a digression to how she buys the ugliest treats at bakes sales so that whoever baked it won’t feel bad, and it all wraps up with a day-in-the-life-of-Jancee sort of story.

What about all of that goes together? But it doesn’t feel disjointed because you realize by the end that the string through all of this is: we’re all weird, so embrace it.

Lesson: Find the string in your stories and pull. Also, ignore looks of suspicion from family members and friends. When you're on The Ellen Degeneres Show promoting your book, you can mention them or their business or whatever, and they'll probably forgive you. Probably.

It's Not All About You
There’s this tricky, almost contradictory, thing about memoirs: they have to be about you, but they can’t only be about you.

In memoirs, you sort of have to be self-centered, but for a memoir to really work, it has to expand to the universal. You need to get yourself out of the story as much as possible so that people can see how they relate to it.

But take this into account: for people to want to read your memoir, you have to be interesting. People need to like you and be invested in you before they can even get to the “here’s what I have to say about life in general” ideas.

So memoir-writing is about finding balance—talking about yourself enough but not too much. Jancee does this well. She gives very specific details about herself so that we can get to know her, but she also expands all of her stories beyond herself.

For example, when talking about how she prepares for trips, she says, “Truly, I was my father’s daughter. We both loved making folders and filing them in neat rows inside pristine file cabinets with color-coordinated labels” (25).

See? Enough detail to make you get something new about Jancee, but it doesn’t turn into a treatise on organization and how wonderful she is at it. Although, truth be told, that is a treatise I would read. I'm the girl who just travelled to France with a binder full of notes, printed bus schedules, and train reservations, all of it in sheet protectors.

And an example of how she can expand to the greater picture, from her essay on watching her parents deal with their parents’ deaths: “It was difficult for me to grasp, in an age when no event is too small to be videotaped, the blunt finality of never hearing your father’s voice again. It was harder still, as a member of the most analyzed generation in American history, to imagine shying away from questions that didn’t seem remotely personal to me” (102).

See? In an essay on her family dealing with grief, she helps readers question their own approach to grief and finality and mortality—that takes a soft touch, let me tell you.

Lesson: Be personable and chatty, if that works with your personality, but remember: it’s not all about you. You may have the most exciting things happen to you every day, but what’s the bigger picture you can show through your writing?

I’m no longer angry at Jancee Dunn. I do appreciate her book and what she can teach me about my own writing. I just wish her mother hadn’t gotten a tattoo.

{But note to my mother: I actually never wished that you hadn't gotten a tattoo, contrary to my incredibly vociferous reaction to your tattoo.}

21 July 2011

you know who you sound like?

I hate Anne Lamott.

Not really.

But isn't that a dramatic beginning?

Here's the non-drama truth: People often tell me that my writing reminds them of someone else's writing.

“Oh, do you know who you sound like? Anne Lamott. She had the funniest story...well, yours is funny, too. You're both so sharp about your faith.”

And that's why I hate her.

I also get: “You're just like David Sedaris, only maybe less bitter and without the slightly frightening ability to impersonate Billie Holiday.”

I take these comments as compliments because I'm sure the people saying them mean them as compliments. Besides, if you have to be compared to someone, Anne Lamott is pretty good company.

I also choose to take these as compliments because if I don't I will scream. And maybe cry, although I'm not known for that. I will cry and scream and wail and generally gnash my teeth because when I read writing that sounds like my own—but better and published—the inevitable question comes up: so who cares about what I have to say?

That's an unfair question, mostly because it's based on comparison, which, if you ask me, is the root of all evil. {Adam and Eve wanted something God had, so I may be on to something there.}

Comparison never gets you anywhere but frustrated. I tried to remember that when I showed my mother the piece I had written on her tattoo, and she said, “Oh, I read the most hilarious book called Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo? And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask. That's just like your story!”

Yes. Just like my story but with a snappy title that encapsulates everything I ever wanted to say about my mother's tattoo, and in fact my working title for my story was "A Question I Shouldn't Have to Ask."

I decided to face my nemesis, Jancee Dunn, this woman who had stolen my writing and my specialness {if I can't be known as the straight-laced girl who over-reacted to her mother's tattoo, what can I be known as?}, head-on: I checked out her book from the library. And I laughed my way through it, but also grew in my hate for Jancee. Her stories all sounded so...familiar.

She wrote about parents who send newspaper clippings with short notes attached; I've written about that, too. {Twice, actually! Once in relation to my mama's new iPad and once just yesterday when I talked about some of the articles I've gotten from my mama.}

She talked about her parents moving out of their home—the one she was raised in—and how she fought that; I've been mulling over a story on the same theme. {Not that my parents have left my childhood home, but the threat of it a few years ago, along with the promise that they're retiring to Canada, was enough to upset me.}

She talked about an obsession with bad-for-you-food; I'm known for my obsession with hot dogs.

Basically, I love Jancee because she's familiar, but I hate her because I can hold her book in my hands. But I did realize that Jancee's writing could be a good role model for me.

Reading good writing makes it easier to write good writing {that isn't a very good sentence, but you get the idea}.

And whether you want to write poetry or a novel or a memoir, you should be immersed in good writing from that genre. It'll teach you, both subtly and overtly, what works well and what you want to avoid.

Coming tomorrow: What I Learned from Envy. Or Jancee.

{You can jump ahead to part 2 here.}

20 July 2011

singing in the car

A few weeks ago, my mama emailed me this article from the American Express OPEN Forum, which proves that American Express really is everywhere you want to be: they're even on the Internet.

And on the Internet, they're helping small business owners with articles like "5 Reasons to Keep a Work Diary" and "The Toll Financial Stress Takes on Your Employees."

So I don't own a business, but I do keep a diary—I prefer the term journal—so my mama thought I'd find that article on keeping a work diary interesting.

As a sidenote, I'm very picky about my journals. I do not like there to be any label on the front, saying that it's a Diary or a Journal or My Thoughts. This same rule applies to photo albums: no Photos or Memories or Special Times or Dang, I Should've Taken More Pictures labelling. It's too obvious, this labelling, and while I know it sounds like a ridiculous rule to have, it's one I'm sticking by.

I like it when my mama sends me articles. Often the come in the mail with Post-it Notes attached.

Found this interesting!

Thought you'd like to see this!

See you Friday!
{I like this one—when she doesn't explain why I'm getting a particular clipping since it's just that obvious, like the wedding announcement of a girl I went to high school with.}

I once got a fat envelope from her that contained articles on:

  • my grandpa—about how happy he was to be living at Sunnybrook, the retirement community in Burlington. After reading it, I wanted to move there.
  • my high school cheerleading coach, who'd been named Iowa Cheer Coach of the Year.
  • the Aldo Leopold movie that premiered in Burlington. You don't know who Aldo Leopold is? I'm shocked. And saddened. Go Google him now. Then come back here and tell me what you've learned.

So an emailed article from a website is the logical next step for my mama, and I appreciated an article all on journalling.

Then, in that way that happens on the Internet, I ended up on another article called "8 Ways to Get More Time for Yourself." The article suggested things like exercising and reading and having coffee dates, all things I already do, so I felt pretty good about my me-time.

{Although interestingly enough, even though I do most of the things in the article, I still felt drawn to this article about getting more time for me, me, me, me. Why is it that no matter how much time we have, we still long for more? That's a big question to tackle another day, another time.}

And then the last tip was this:

19 July 2011

a quiz: we're having a heat wave

Say it is 6:15 on a Tuesday evening and you have just settled into the couch to fold the whites.

On the TV is The Simpsons, and in the background noise, the air conditioning is pleasantly humming away.

On a day when the heat index was said to be over 100—

On a day you spent in a cubicle, a corner one with big windows that you normally enjoy but today led to a greenhouse sort of effect—

On the first free Tuesday you have had since...months ago, so long ago, you can't exactly remember—

On a day like this, you're very much enjoying the red wine you just poured. {Note to self: do not spill on whites. No need to get sloppy here.}

And then the electricity flickers, dims, pops, and goes out.

No more pleasant humming from the air conditioning.

No more Simpsons music.

No more.

But there is still wine, and this being summer, there is still light.

This brings us to the quiz. In this scenario, what do you do?
  1. Open the windows and pray for a breeze, even though the wind has not blown at all. All day, the air has been still and weighted down, like it was waiting for a blind date who was an hour late—so late that you start to think he walked in, took one look at you, and backed out. That's what the air felt like today: like disappointment.
  2. Thank the good Lord that you have a gas range and can, therefore, still make dinner. And dinner should involve massive amounts of fresh produce and dairy products because you do not, do not at all, want your food to go to waste, should the electricity not come back on for days. In this case, pretend fresh kale and three kinds of cheese are at your disposal.
  3. Pour yourself another glass of red wine. Not that it's going to go waste should the electricity stay out for days on end, but...drink it anyway. Your other option is pink lemonade.
  4. Head for the hills, which means anywhere with AC.

There is no right answer here.

{I, in fact, chose all of those options, and I'm now hanging out in the library. Even though it's just down the street from me, it still has electricity. They'll be closing soon, though, so I'm hoping to walk back into an apartment with the TV blaring and the AC humming. If it isn't...well, I put some candles by my bed and I'll play Little House on the Prairie for the night, which doesn't sound like a half-bad game.}

18 July 2011

two things. not related.

I have had two things in my head all day.

{No, I've had many things in my head all day, starting with: Why, oh why, is it 81 degrees at 5:30 in the morning? With a heat index of I don't want to know? I was not born for seasons like this in the Midwest.}

One Thing in My Head. I watched the leaves fall on a bright summer day.

That line came to me as I sat outside the Hotel de Ville in Aix-en-Provence. There were, in fact, leaves falling from the plane trees above me, just as if it were fall, and the whole idea seemed quite poetic to me.

Ephemeral summer. Change. How you can't predict even one detail of one day {that the leaves will stay on the trees in the summer}.

So perhaps a poem will come from that.

Second Thing in My Head. Jane Austen died on this day in...oh, I can't remember the year, and I only know this fact because of Twitter. Twitter teaches me random things like this all the time, which is one of the main benefits I can find in Twitter: it fills me with dinner party trivia.

So Jane died ages ago on this day, and now I'm thinking of a quote from Persuasion: It sometimes happens that a woman is handsomer at 29 than she was 10 years before.

I am not saying I'm handsomer now than I was at 19, but it's a good quote and now I want to re-read Persuasion.

These two thoughts: they are pretty all right thoughts to have with you throughout a hot summer's day.

15 July 2011

that the sun would feel this good

And here I find myself in Aix-en-Provence again, sitting in the square just by the Hotel de Ville.

Two men sit over there by the fountain—one of many fountains here in Aix, the town founded by the Romans because of the natural spring here. How could those Romans pass up an opportunity to take a bath on their journey to conquer Europe?

It seems every corner you turn, every street you think might lead you home, has a fountain of some size. Even at the smallest ones, tucked into the sides of buildings, you can see hints of the town as it used to be, back when women came here every day to get water for their families.

But those two men sitting by the fountain today: they're playing the violin and the accordion, and I can hear echoes of the gypsy history here in Aix, too. With the cheerful bounce to the violin—blended with the nostalgic longing of the accordion—I can imagine, for just a minute, a gypsy camp out in the hills of Provence, red scarves and gold hoops blurring together as the women dance.

But there is no dance here today, only sunshine and no clouds. Not one, even one, is in the sky as I look up through the plane trees, their canopy stretched over me. The sun is so brilliant today, it's burning the sky white: it's past blue, more than blue, today.

That's now, though.

This morning, Amie and I went on a run to Cezanne's studio, which, as it should be, is up-up-up the hill leading out of the centre-ville—out of downtown and away from that maze of fountained streets.

Cezanne needed to be on top of the town to capture more of the light, more of the clarity that painting can bring to life.

We ran up, thighs screeching a bit, and once, we had to stop. We had to walk, and I turned to walk backwards up the hill. Used different muscles, but it also gave me a different view.

When I turned around to see what I had been running from, I saw the cathedrale St-Saveur, that Roman church just up the street from where I went to school in Aix.

The tower stood, familiar and reassuring, against a sharp-edged blue sky.

As I tried to calm my breathing and my muscles, I thought ahead to sitting in this cafe. I knew I would be—not that I knew which cafe exactly, but I knew that I would be sitting in a cafe.

And I think I knew that there would be gypsy music, and I think I knew that the sun would feel this good.

14 July 2011

Jesus was hiding {part 2}

This is Part 2 of a story about my recent trip to France. You might want to read Part 1 first—just a friendly suggestion.


I could see Aude's confusion, and so I blathered on.

And panicked. I blathered and panicked, which is never a good combination, especially when you're trying to speak in your second language, one that involves four different pronunciations of the letter “u” and you've just crossed the Atlantic. Never panic when your body isn't sure what time it is.

But I couldn't stop the panic. In France, I’m so rarely given the opportunity to talk about my faith. Oh, I’ve had plenty of debates on religion; the French love a good intellectual debate, and when they learn I’m a Christian—and one who goes to church every week at that—they ooh la la in excitement.

A live Christian, right in front of them! I’m treated as a rarity, as a scientific specimen to examine and cross-examine.

At various points during my life in France, I’ve been asked:

  • How do you explain the Crusades?
  • Why does America have the song “God Bless America”?
  • Why did the Spanish Inquisition happen?
  • Was 9/11 part of God’s plan?
  • Why are there so many denominations?

But jamais—never—have I been asked to share the story of Jesus’ crucifixion while standing in front of a hand-carved altar in a church from the 17th Century.

My French education prepared me to recite details of various Louis’ and revolutions. It prepared me to order un pain au chocolat, and I’m very well-versed in how to ask for the bill at a café. I can read the newspaper Le Monde and sing along with French songs on NRJ, the pop radio station.

But none of my vocabulary drills involved the words sacrifice, sanctification, Pharisees, or resurrection. I was not given a conversation model to explain why Jesus had to die to a 15-year-old girl who comes from a country with a long history of being hurt by and then distrusting the capital C Church.

I did what I most always do in these I-haven’t-prepared-for-this situations: I panicked and blathered.

13 July 2011

how did judas betray jesus? {part 1}

The three of us stood in front of the altar in the church at Villequerie. Aude, 15 now, tall, and no longer as likely to jump on me for a piggyback ride as she did when she was 9, looked at her mother, who looked at me. Aude had just asked, “How did Judas betray Jesus?”

The altar at the little church had a wooden relief of the Last Supper, Jesus in the middle with his 12 disciples around him. The conversation had started out easily enough: Laurence had explained to Aude who the disciples were.

As she did that, I tried very hard to focus on standing up.

Not that I didn't want to hear about the disciples—and in particular what Lau had to say about them—but I had just flown into France that morning; my jet-lagged mind, while content to be with Aude and Laurence again, was prone to breaks from reality, from what was going on around me.

I had landed at 7:30 and promptly stepped into a mass of French police carrying machine guns. Someone had left a bag unattended in between doors 5 and 6 of Terminal 2A at Charles de Gaulle airport, and instead of getting une expresso, as I had been planning since approximately 4 minutes into my flight, I was told to evacuate immediately. Told by a man in a beret and with the biggest gun I had ever seen that close.

The day had become a timezone-deprived mess: up at 4am, which was really 11am in France—must start thinking in French time again and maybe that'll help me start thinking in French again—to catch a flight to Boston so that I could catch a flight to France so that I could step off the plane and do a dance with a machine gun.

And from there, it was a bus into Paris,

a train to Rouen,

a hug and kiss for Aude, who'd met me at the train station.

Lunch—cantaloupe with prosciutto, tomatoes with sea salt, bread, and a salad—in the garden,

a drive down the Seine past fields of hay bales {has life become a Monet painting?},

and then there I found myself thinking about staying upright when Laurence turned to me.

“Yes, how did Judas betray Jesus?”

My English-speaking brain came up with a quick answer: Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, and thank the Lord, my French-speaking brain could translate that. Somewhat.

12 July 2011

a love/hate thing

In French, my nuances are taken from me. I'm forced, by the limits of vocabulary, to make very categorical statements.

I love coffee. I have it every day.

I like to read. I prefer the classics.

I love running. I try to do it 5 days a week in the mornings.

I prefer the mornings. I like getting up very early.

Those are all very true statements, but there are shades I could fill in in English that I struggle to fill in en francais. It's a black and white world for me in French, and everyone listening to me must think I'm very sure of myself.

I hate this. I love that. Done and done.

What I mean to say is:
I love coffee, the ritual of it. I don't think I'm addicted to the caffeine as much as to the experience. Grinding the coffee, the smell of it brewing, waiting to take that first sip.

I love how sometimes I want an espresso and sometimes I want black coffee and sometimes I want lots of cream.

I love the almost always fulfilled expectation of weak coffee at a diner—but I order it anyway, just to drink it out of one of those thick-handled mugs.

I love that coffee makes me want to write, and I love that, bizarrely, coffee doesn't keep me awake.

In French, though—at least the frozen French that tumbles out as my brain thaws when I first come back to France—what I can get out is: I love coffee. A lot.

For someone so sure of herself in English—of my command of the English language—this is very unnerving.

And yet—it's exciting. It's exciting to try to think fast enough in a foreign language.

And yet—it's challenging. It's challenging to try to get out complicated thoughts in a language where your vocabulary is very uncomplicated.

And yet—it's humbling. It's humbling to realize you're going to make mistakes and you're going to have to laugh at yourself.

And so I can categorically say: I love French. A lot.

Even in French I can say that: J'aime le francais. Beaucoup.

11 July 2011

la lavande

There are certain images we all know, pictures that are lodged in our communal memory from seeing them so many times on posters or postcards or on TV.

The Taj Mahal with a clear blue sky behind it.

The Eiffel Tower at night.

Tulips in Holland.

The lavender fields in Provence.

Do you know what I'm talking about? You see these pictures everywhere, and you start to think: can it really be that beautiful? Can it really be that color? Can it really be that big?

And sometimes, you're lucky enough to see one of these things in real life. Rising in front of you is a picture that's become so familiar—but it's not on a postcard anymore.

You know a picture is worth a thousand words, but all you can come up with as you stand in front of this iconic beauty is: Wow. Oh, wow.

I saw the lavender fields in Provence two days ago. For the last month, my computer wallpaper at work has been a picture of the Abbaye de Senanque with the lavender stretching in front of it.

Every time I closed an email or an article I was writing, I saw the purple fields and I could almost smell the lavender. {Perhaps that's useful at work, seeing as lavender is supposed to de-stress and relax you.}

But there I was, standing in the field myself.

I had become part of the picture.

I did a cartwheel in front of the abbaye—I have this habit of taking pictures of me doing cartwheels in the prettiest places—but with my skirt on that day, you could see a little more than I intended.

Amie, my friend I was travelling with, was taking the picture. "Um, you can see your underwear in this. Should I just erase it?"

Um, yes, please.

I don't want my picture of the lavender fields—my shot at this image that has become a symbol of beauty—to involve I see London, I see France, I see Kamiah's underpants.

And so I took one with just the lavender, just the fields of rows and rows of lavender, all lined up and headed towards the abbaye.

There is a time for everything, including a time for taking a cartwheel picture and a time for wearing a skirt. However, there's rarely a time for taking a cartwheel picture in a skirt.

Just a note for you, should you ever decide to travel to the lavender fields of Provence: get ready to be speechless, and, if you're prone to cartwheels, wear pants.

02 July 2011

early morning at o'hare

The sun was not yet up when I left home this morning.

But when I got to the airport—and made it through security in 6 minutes, a blessing of flying so early—the sun was full-up. Ready for the day.

And I'm ready to go.

01 July 2011

anagrams and a book review

I went to the library the other week to get another book off my Library Reading List {read about how I got this list here—it involves the eHarmony of literature}, but shock and sadness, they were out of it.

Didn't they know to reserve a copy of every book on my list for me? Apparently not.

I went to get The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell, and I ended up with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which is also by Maggie O'Farrell. I figured—oh, close enough.

But oh, I didn't figure on this book making me stay up past my bedtime. It takes place in present-day London and India of the 1930s{ish}. I didn't figure on getting lost in the language and being filled with a strong impulse to be in England, on a coast pondering my life.

I didn't figure on finding a passage that summed up a little of what I was going for in that poem I wrote for my grandma. I ask in there: Did she pass down her gestures, as well as her brown hair, in the family DNA?

It's something I've wondered. We all look for smile similarities or a family nose when we look back on old pictures. Am I in this face? Would someone know that we were related? Is that where I got my funny ears?

But what about mannerisms? Do those get passed down, generation to generation, as we imitate our mothers, who are imitating their mothers, who are imitating their mothers?

I don't know. I don't know how my great-great grandmother held her head when she was reading or sewing.

But in this book by Maggie O'Farrell, there's an older family member who's been secreted away for 61 years: the younger generation didn't even know she existed. When the older and younger meet, the older woman is a direct line to the past—and she can see her own mother in this younger woman.

So this is the passage that I read late, late one night, and thought, Now, that is what I'm going for in my poem:

From all her family—her and Kitty and Hugo and all the other babies and her parents—from all of them, there is only this girl. She is the only one left. They have all narrowed down to this black-haired girl sitting on the sand, who has no idea that her hands and her eyes and the tilt of her head and the fall of her hair belong to Esme's mother. We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin the world as anagrams of our antecedents.

Anagrams of our antecedents. Makes you want to rush to your family pictures, doesn't it?


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