24 December 2014

63 Things I Think While Watching White Christmas

Every year, I watch White Christmas at least once before Christmas. It's a requirement for me to feel Christmas spirit. The war! The nostalgia! The singing! The dresses! The tiny waists! The plot holes! The dancing! The fur muffs!
And this is what I think nearly every time I watch White Christmas.

  1. The war looks slightly dirty, I'll give you that, but overall much cleaner than I expected.
  2. Who brought their saxophone to war? What did they think that would do for them? Fire bullets in very curvy paths?
  3. Oh, let's all get nostalgic for the days when $6.60 or $8.80 was considered a steep price.
  4. I mean, there was a war on, so maybe we shouldn't get too nostalgic, but hey, you could bring your band instruments to the front line, so at least band nerds could be a little more nostalgic.
  5. Who was in charge of bringing the painted backdrop of New England to war?
  6. General Waverly is using a stick as a cane—like, a branch that fell off a tree, perhaps during some bombing. Why doesn't he have a real cane? Is he being sent away from the front in order to find a new cane? Could someone fashion him a cane, maybe out of the saxophone? I realize that's a terrible thing to do to a musical instrument, but it's wartime. We all have to make sacrifices.
  7. In "The Old Man," the song the men sing in farewell to General Waverly," they sing, "And we'll tell the kiddies we answered duty's call / With the grandest son of a soldier of them all!" So, General Waverly's dad was also a soldier, or am I being too literal? In any event, someone please explore the Waverly back story. It is ripe for more details. And while you're at it, please explain what he did for the rest of the war after the slam-bang send-off Bing Crosby gave him. More General Waverly all the time. That's all I'm asking.
  8. Who else, when Danny Kaye tries to brush off the severity of his wound, wants him to say, "It's just a flesh wound!"? Is it just me?
  9. I want to go back in time and write headlines for that Variety newspaper that reports on Wallace and Davis and other entertainment news. Oh, to work for a place that allows such alliteration as "Boffo Biz in Better Bistros."
  10. Do we have levels of bistros still? Are there good ones and bad ones? How do I know if I'm at a better bistro?
  11. I should work the word boffo into more conversations.
  12. I should also start saying, "Mutual, I'm sure," when I'm introduced, just like that vapid, she-can't-even-spell-Smith chorus girl does. It will make people think I'm far ahead of them in the conversation.
  13. I always have to cover my eyes when Bing Crosby is changing. Seeing him in his underwear, it's just so risque.
  14. For me, one of the saddest lines in the whole movie is right after Bing explains to Danny that he doesn't think he'll find a girl in the music business who's ready to settle down. Danny says that that's the first time he's opened up like that, in all the time they've known each other. It's been 10 years since the war, and they've been singing and dancing and touring together that whole time—and this is the most they've ever shared? I am sad for their friendship and wonder what they do talk about. Better bistros? Where to buy more gray shoes that perfectly match their pants? Try to remember the name of the guy who brought a saxophone to war?
  15. I wish we still lived in a world where people got so dressed up to go out to dinner and a show. Those people at the club where the Haynes sisters are performing—did you see the dresses? And the very tall heels?
  16. I spend a lot of time while watching White Christmas either being nostalgic for a time I never experienced, or experiencing dress envy.
  17. Now I'm looking at my jeans in disappointment: Why can't you be a teal flouncy dress?
  18. Not that I want to be part of a sister act.
  19. Although my sister and I were dressed alike to perform a few times, but this was at church. Singing about Jesus is a far cry from being a sister act in a nightclub in Florida.
  20. Now I want to watch that movie Sister Act. You know, the one with Whoopi Goldberg as a nun and Maggie Smith as a mother superior {really, some of Maggie's best work—I don't know why people go on and on about that Prime of Miss Jean Brodie}. Because there's singing and nuns, it's basically The Sound of Music but without the kids. Or Nazis.
  21. I do not agree that the best things happen while you're dancing. I think they happen while you're cooking. Or reading.
  23. Also, why does her name have a hyphen? Did she not have a last name? Was she the Madonna of her day?
  24. Freckle-Faced Haynes, the Dog-Faced Boy, is not all that bad looking. It seems a little unfair to be so judgmental of his looks, Danny Kaye.
  25. That audience that got to see an impromptu performance from Wallace & Davis singing "Sisters" got a bargain: I am sure that tickets to their normal show would've cost $6.60 or even $8.80.
  26. A snood, by the way, is an ornamental hairnet worn at the back of a woman's head. {Bing asks Danny if he left his money in his snood.} I am not nostalgic for the days when women wore these, partly because it's a silly word to say.
  27. Every time I've travelled on the Amtrak, I have willed it to be like this train in White Christmas. A cafe car serving cocktails and with real silverware and napkins. Cozy beds. But as I sit in the cafe car eating warmed up pizza and drinking coffee from a styrofoam cup, I know that it is not the same.
  28. Have these four never seen snow before? Why would you want to wash your hair in snow? Or your face? This all sounds very cold.
  29. But I am on board with making models of snow-covered mountains with napkins. So cute! Pinterest-worthy, really.
  30. I wonder what it would be like to try to sleep sitting up in a cafe car of a train. I've slept sitting up in a normal seat on a train before—on my way back from Morocco, but that is a story for another time—and of course that's comfortable enough. But the cafe car? What if the bartender kept trying to give you more of those creamy white drinks?
  31. Speaking of which, what are those creamy white drinks that the four harmonizers look at so longingly while singing about snow? It looks like a milkshake, but why would you drink a milkshake in the winter?
  32. Bing does mention a hot buttered rum—light on the butter. I want to make that happen, except I would double the butter.
  33. Oh, maybe the milkshake drinking was foreshadowing to the summer-like temperatures in Vermont. But maybe I'm overanalyzing the movie. Maybe.
  34. That lady who plays the housekeeper is in The Music Man. I would like to create a game that's like 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but it'd be 6 Degrees of My Favorite Musical. I bet you I can work it in to any conversation. That is how 6 Degrees works, right?
  35. BUT WAIT: That lady is also in Sister Act.
  36. My thoughts on White Christmas are really becoming circular now, and mostly circling around Sister Act, it seems.
  37. Third time hearing the "Sisters" song. I would like to volunteer now to sing it, unless I have to wear a snood.
  38. I've never understood the General's finances. I know he sunk his whole pension and all his savings into the place, but it's still early in the ski season and there was snow at Thanksgiving. It's probably mid-December by the time Bing and Friends arrive, so that just a couple of weeks of no guests. I realize that I know zero about running ski lodges, but it just seems that he has a long ski season ahead of him and besides, there were people at dinner during the Haynes sisters' performance of "Sisters" {aka, their only number}. Where did those people come from? Are they townspeople who feel bad for the General and so get all dressed up on a random weeknight to come out an eat Emma's cooking?
  39. Once the cast arrives, we enter the part of the movie I like to call: I Wish I Knew the Plot of Their Musical.
  40. The title—Playing Around—gives no clues.
  41. And don't get me started on "Mandy" and "Choreography." One looks back to the minstrel days and one bemoans the state of current theater. WHEN are you happy, fictitious musical-within-White Christmas?
  43. Even wearing that white sparkly leotard in "Mandy" where she looks like she may have, I'm sorry to say, an adult diaper under that leotard {why is it so oddly puffy?}, Vera-Ellen is disturbingly skinny.
  44. Where do all these cast members sleep? Exactly how big is this ski lodge? Does Emma do all the cooking and cleaning for this place? Or does Susan, General Waverly's granddaughter, help out?
  45. And where are Susan's parents?
  46. I still don't believe that the best things happen while you're dancing.
  47. Betty's velour dress is pretty cool, though. More dress envy.
  48. So much could be cleared up if only Betty would talk to Bob instead of believing all these rumors spread by that busybody of a housekeeper, Emma. Betty wouldn't have had to run away to New York to sing her sad, lonely, love/torch song. She and Bob could've sung their "Count Your Blessings" duet in the show because why not? Any song will fit into that musical's plot.
  49. But confronting problems and saying to another person, "Hey, I heard this thing about you, and I want to know the truth behind it" works well as advice in a Dear Abby column; in many great love stories, it would stop the plot cold. What if Elizabeth had asked Darcy to explain his involvement in the twisted tale of Wickham? That would've cut Pride & Prejudice in half and cut out all the drama.
  50. But I do love that in White Christmas, Betty learns the truth about Bob and his plan to surprise the General while watching TV on a break from performing "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me." This is proof that TV brings us together.
  51. Judging from the number of men at the train station on Christmas Eve, it will be impossible to hide all these men from the General. It's his Inn, after all. Of course he'll notice a much more boisterous backstage crowd.
  52. Or maybe there's a secret back road entrance we haven't seen? One that doesn't cross over the horseshoe game?
  53. Do Bob and Phil have their Army uniforms with them whenever they travel?
  54. Or did they have these sent from home?
  55. Where is home for them? Do they have an apartment in New York City? Are they like Oscar and Felix, the Odd Couple, and live together as perfectly opposite roommates? Or do they have separate apartments in the same building?
  56. One of my favorite lines in the whole movie: General Waverly tells Emma that he got along just fine in the Army without her, and she comes back with, "Yeah, and it took 15,000 men to take my place!" One million points to Emma.
  57. Also, can there be a White Christmas sequel where Emma and the General get married? They clearly need to.
  58. In this sequel, Emma can also apologize for nearly permanently breaking up Betty and Bob with her baseless gossip. It bothers me that the never addresses her fault in the whole hullabaloo, but she does have that whole "15,000 men" quip in her favor, so I might forgive her.
  59. When the General is walking among the soldiers, shaking hands and looking touched, I like to watch this awkward moment: He reaches out for a soldier's hand but withdraws it before actually shaking. It's as if he saw whose hand he was about to shake and remembered how much he didn't like that guy. Perhaps this guy was a chef and couldn't do much with those rations. Or maybe he complained a lot about wearing a necktie during war. Or maybe he stole the General's cane.
  60. Considering that Betty never rehearsed "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army," she is a quick study. She should do this professionally.
  61. "White Christmas"! They're singing "White Christmas"! And it's not in front of a painted backdrop that somebody brought to war!
  62. Why does Bob throw Betty's present in the tree? He should set it nicely under the tree to treasure later.
  63. I applaud the person who was so quick to hitch up the sleigh and the horses when it started to snow. They look like a picture print from Currier and Ives.

04 December 2014

talking to people on trains

I am on the train and thinking about talking to someone else on the train. (That sounds like the teasing beginning to a game of Twenty Questions: Guess who I am thinking of!)

I'm considering breaking the commuter code of silence because I heard a story on NPR this morning that public transit commuters who talk to other commuters are happier than those who sit in their safe, self-contained world, reading or looking at their smartphones. If NPR reported it, it must be true (and witty and intelligent), so like a good acolyte, I'm doing what they told me to.

(You can read this story for yourself here. My favorite part is where they say that "even for introverts, silence is leaving you sadder." I'm tempted to take that as a challenge: I will not be sadder by not having to talk to other people, just watch me.)

I've been riding the same train for a year-and-a-half—the same car, even. We are creatures of habit: Just as in school when we're allowed to choose our own seat every day and we, after only a few classes, gravitate toward the same seat with territorial fervor, commuters stick with the car and the seat that they know.

Why do we so easily and willingly—gratefully, almost—slip into routine in these small, quotidian ways? I think we are made to find order, and we take joy in ordering the same coffee from the same person. We like sitting down in "our" seat and seeing familiar faces around us. The world is unpredictable, but we make small choices every day to make it feel ever-so-slightly more predictable.

Part of the predictability of my commute is that no one talks. There's a man who works the crossword every day, and behind him is a guy who immediately falls asleep after settling in to his seat. How does he do this? I want to know how restful that sleep is and if he every considered going to bed earlier to avoid the need to sleep more in such a very public place. But it's hard to ask him questions, seeing as he's sleeping, so I'm stuck with my wonderings.

Usually there's an older couple sitting in front of me. They're in their 60s: the man gray-haired and bearded and the woman with a rich blonde that I'm sure is dyed but it looks so natural. Her hair is styled, every day, as if she were Hayley Mills in that show Good Morning, Miss Bliss. Do you know what I'm talking about? It was the precursor to Saved by the Bell, and if you're still a little bit lost (or would like a trip down memory lane), here's a picture of Miss Bliss:

Over the last year-and-a-half, I have invented an entire life for this couple. He's often typing away at what is clearly a scientific abstract, so I made him an epidemiologist at Northwestern, working determinedly in his lab to find the cure for everything. I imagine him travelling around the world to medical conferences to report his findings in PowerPoint talks that are standing room only. His work is that crucial, and his presentations are that engaging.

She's often reading—The New Yorker or a novel—and I believe she's a librarian and is known for her knack of recommending just the perfect book for someone, even if it's in a genre they wouldn't normally read. You can tell her one book you like, one movie you've seen recently, and how you feel about one current even she asks about, and before you're even done answering, you'll receive a book title on one of those little pieces of scrap paper the library has everywhere. A handpicked book: It's practically magical.

When this couple, several months back, spent their train rides looking at decorating websites and discussing in low tones how hardwood is a must because it's so classic and inviting (when there are plush rugs especially, she added), I invented for them a second home in Paris. Their pied a terre is their retirement dream, a goal they've both kept in mind through hours and hours in the lab and in the stacks.

And now it was finally coming true! I was so happy for them, even though I'd never technically spoken to them, but then, two weeks before Thanksgiving, my train friends disappeared.

At first I thought that perhaps they had taken an early Thanksgiving holiday. I'm sure they have children to visit in New York City (of course they enjoy the theatre and all the restaurants) or Napa Valley or Tuscany (apparently I think their children really like wine). But then they didn't come back after Thanksgiving, and now it's been almost a whole week after the rest of my silent commuter friends have returned.

Where are you? I ask their seat every day. I worry about my train friends I don't even know, and now I realize that if I were one of those happy commuters who talked—instead of consuming book after book—I would know, and I wouldn't be so sad as I look at their empty seat.

To console myself, I'm going to believe that they have escaped to that pied a terre in Paris. They're planning on spending the holidays in France because there's just something so right and charming about seeing the City of Lights in twinkle lights. When they come back in January, I'll be sure to ask them how it was.

01 December 2014

oh, alarm clocks

It is cold and it is dark; my first thought this morning when the alarm went off was the very obvious and very predictable, 'But I don't want to go to work!'

This is how it always is after any longer-than-a-weekend time off. Your body has gotten used to not waking up to an alarm, and no matter how early you go to bed the night before, you will whine just a little when the alarm goes off.

And have you noticed that we try to make our alarms sound so pleasant now? There are many options on cell phones: ocean waves, birds singing, gentle guitars as if you had hired a troubadour troop to creepily sneak into your bedroom and wake you up.

If the alarm is sweet and natural, perhaps waking will be sweet and natural, the reasoning seems to be.

But who are we kidding? In reality, alarms should be jarring, and the more shocking, the better—the blare that sounds like a nuclear apocalypse is coming, the crackly static of the local AM station, the clanging din of those now retro but once iconic alarm clocks.

Or maybe they should guilt you out of bed by saying, "You have to get up. You have responsibilities. You have to get up. How will the dog eat without you? You have to get up if you want to pay your mortgage."

Any of those would work better than these dulcet awakenings we have now—sounds that make me want to do nothing but stay in bed. That was my second thought this morning: how to make alarm clocks better.

By the time I turned off my own alarm—a bright beeping on my running watch—I was ready to conquer the cold and the dark. I mean, even in my half-asleep, half-formed-thoughts state, I had come up with a guilt-inducing alarm clock that would prey on Americans' work ethic and competitiveness: What could I achieve when I got out of bed?

(And that is the question that keeps us going, even when it's so cold and dark.)

04 November 2014

On the Train After Voting

I am on the train to work—a later train than I normally take because I voted on my way to the station today. I vote at the library, so it's just across the street from me, and I love stepping into that normally quiet building at 6am to hear it buzzing with neighbors.

One woman was in running tights and a reflector vest—clearly just finishing a run, judging from her quick breaths. Several people were train commuters like me, bags slung over the shoulder and multiple glances at the clock: we must make that train to get to work to rush through the day to rush home.

And then there were the older retired people working the poll. Did they decide to work because they've always loved doing their part? Because they're up early anyway? Because they get to talk to all kinds of people?

One woman, the one who checked me in (it still amazes me that I never have to show ID—I just need to sign a paper saying that I am the person listed there), wore a denim jacket and a star-covered scarf. This small touch of patriotism made me like her so much, even when she had trouble understanding my name and I had to resort to, “W-A-L-K-E-R. Walker. Like a person who walks. No, not Walter.” (A person who walts?)

We got it figured out, and now I'm proudly wearing my “I voted” sticker and wondering how it'll all turn out.

There's such a malaise, an annoyance, an apathy now, isn't there? People are tired of talking about politics, and they're tired of hearing about politicians—but that's all our news is about, it seems. Campaigning and those terrible, unhelpful ads start earlier and earlier every election, and if we all agree that we ignore them and if we all want to scream by the time the election comes around, why has this become a normal, accepted part of our elections?

It's just like with Christmas decorations: Every year stores put them up earlier, and every year we all roll our eyes and nostalgically remember the good old days when it didn't become Christmas time until after Thanksgiving—and then we buy decorations and wrapping paper in September, perpetuating the idea that we, the consumers, are demanding a Christmas shopping season that lasts 9 months.

We've done this to ourselves—the decorations and the elections—but we still look around in shock, blinking in surprise at what our daily lives have become. And then we step out of the voting booth, button up our coats, and step outside into the November chill, hopeful for today that something will change.

10 August 2014

Irish Conversations: Three

"What is it that you'll miss most about Ireland when you move to London?"

My question hung in the air for longer than a moment, long enough for me to think that Mark hadn't heard. I glanced around the room—we were in the cocktail bar at the Merrion Hotel. It was in the Georgian neighborhood of Dublin, just down the street from the No. 29 House, the restored middle-class home I'd visited on my first day in town, but this room was anything but middle class.

It struck the right balance of masculine and feminine: Rich leather armchairs but instead of the expected gleaming brown, they were in a warm cream. On the low tables were vases of flowers, arranged to look haphazard as if they'd just been brought in from the garden, although I suspected quite a lot of care had been taken with them. The napkins were cloth and monogrammed with an M, and you felt that your conversation should be hushed and about genteel things—about the kind of things the landed gentry would find interesting, such as hunting, garden parties, and who made the best dresses in town.

I wasn't talking about those things with Mark, of course, because we aren't landed gentry and because we'd only just met. I'd read in one of my guidebooks that you can set up a meeting with a real, live Dubliner through the group City of a Thousand Welcomes. They call themselves Dublin Ambassadors, and Mark was mine. You get a free drink and an hour's conversation with someone who can recommend a restaurant not listed in your guidebook and who can make sure that even if you don't talk to another Irish person the whole time you're in Ireland {highly unlikely}, at least you'll go home with one good story.

Mark was 30-something, a born and bred Dubliner. He was the kind of man that the word "slight" was made for. He wore a very correct three-piece suit, something you so rarely see now, and his wire-frame glasses made him look even more like he should've been a clerk in a bank in 1912, one who wrote poetry at night in his cramped apartment.

But for all his buttoned-up look, Mark was not about to be pigeon-holed by my overactive imagination. I learned in the first five minutes that he had, for a time, earned a living as a poker player in Las Vegas. He'd been a dealer in a casino in Buenos Aires, and he'd once ridden a motorcycle from Alaska to Argentina. After that, he worked with a non-profit that helped bring clean water to villages in Africa.

You could say he had a touch of wanderlust.

Mark had been back in Dublin for a couple of years, working at a museum and getting a lot of family time. But it was time to go again; he felt it in his feet, he said, and I understood—I empathized with—his deep love for his home but his inability to live there forever.

In two months, Mark told me, he was moving to London, and that's when I asked what he'd miss most about Ireland. It seemed like the right thing to ask someone who was an Ambassador of his culture.

He thought for so long, I wondered if he was reconsidering the move, based on how many things he thought he'd miss, but then he spoke, quietly but fervently.

"The pubs. I'll miss the pubs. I know it sounds expected—the Irish man missing his Guinness, but it's more than that. The pubs in other places, they aren't the same, you know. Your bars in America are made for hook-ups and for trying to outdo each other. And the pubs in England...they don't have the same feel. What I mean is—is that pubs in Ireland are made for conversation. They're made for getting to know each other, sitting so close because there aren't enough tables and chairs for everyone. And they're quiet: Have you noticed that?

"Pubs in England are places of distraction; the TVs, the piped-in music, it all gives you a place to escape. But our pubs here in Ireland, we go there to find a bit of home, of connection. So that's what I'll miss: the pubs."

Mark, who had been looking at me so intently, now looked away, remembering, perhaps, his favorite moments in his favorite pub. I let him sit in that memory as I tried to think of what place in America could provoke such feel-it-in-your-blood loyalty.

Our diners? But not everyone eats there. Not every town even has one.

Our cafes? We're not French.

The mall? Let's not turn into stereotypes of ourselves.

In a country as large and diverse as ours, it's hard to find that one defining institution, like the Irish pub that Mark will miss so much. It made me both jealous and happy: Happy that the Irish have somewhere they can so emphatically call home, and jealous that we don't.

Mark turned back to me with a smile. "And the Guinness. I will miss the Guinness."

07 August 2014

Sneem: A Picture Postcard

Tonight I am in a little town in County Kerry called Sneem. It sounds like a dwarf's name, and perhaps Sneem was the eighth dwarf but got lost on the way to the diamond mine one day and ended up by the sea here in Ireland.

Settling in, he found that he liked the fresh sea air, the touch of rain every day, and not being just another face in the crowd of short, hardworking men. Away from Grumpy, he became increasingly more cheerful, and far from Doc, he started to look like the smart one. People were drawn to his smart cheerfulness, and the town grew up around him and so they decided to name the town after him. Sneem.

I could see why my mythical Sneem the Dwarf liked this place when I biked into town this afternoon. It was the first day of my three-day Ring of Kerry bike tour, and I'd made it to Sneem by 5pm after a day of seeing scenery so achingly beautiful, I couldn't stop smiling. At one point, I found myself humming "How Great Thou Art," a song that came unbidden but that was right for those bright green hills, the mountains rising, the sheep gathered by huge boulders. The works Thy hands have made, indeed.

The bike tour company had given very clear directions for this self-guided tour, and as I descended into Sneem {thinking about how I'd need to ascend that hill tomorrow}, I read the directions to get to the Sneem Hotel: Turn left at the one stop sign in town.

The one stop sign—this was going to be my kind of town.

The stop sign was at a corner of the South Square. Sneem is cut in two by a river—the River Sneem, in fact—and on each bank, there is a square. It's as if the town wanted to pretend that it was bigger than it really is, what with their North Square and their South Square. Each square has a church, so in my mind, one side was for the Catholics and one side was for the Protestants, but even such a divided country as Ireland, I don't think that was the case in little Sneem.

Sneem is called An tSnaidhm in Irish, which translates to "The Knot." It's been called the Knot in the Ring of Kerry, a romantic and charming idea for a town that gets its lifeblood from the tourist trade—from all those tourists pouring in busload after busload during the summer to see Ireland as it was.

I'm just as guilty of that, even if I didn't come on a bus. I came to Ireland to see a slower paced life, one that still feels tied to the earth and to the traditions of centuries. The first thing I thought when I biked into Sneem was, "I'm sure this village hasn't changed into years upon years," a rather unfair thought to aim at a town that's simply trying its best to keep tourists and residents alike happy.

But looking at the tidy green in the center of the South Square, I could see little boys in knee britches chasing each other and women in sensible shoes and warm coats gossiping—because I wanted to see this place as stuck in the past, as a slice of Ireland that's just as it was in some mythical past out of Brigadoon.

Without even needing to try, I insinuated myself in the midst of it all, imagining what it'd be like to grow up in this town of colorful houses and slate roofs. The fair would be the most exciting thing to happen every summer, and I'd have a job waiting tables at the pub D O'Shea's, the one that's painted bright pink in the North Square.

It's not hard for me to make up a whole new life in a place that feels as familiar as Sneem, a place that seems set up to make you want to stay. At the pub tonight—I went to D O'Shea's—I sat on a wooden bench next to a fireplace, and it wasn't hard to believe that people had been sitting on that bench for more than a hundred years, meeting neighbors and ignoring enemies. The waitress called me "love," and told me that I'd made a very good decision in ordering the Irish bacon with colcannon {mashed potatoes and cabbage}.

Everything about this town feels like a memory you'd forgotten about, one that you've only just remembered and now get that long, slow delight of reliving something that was so special to you once.

Sneem. What a name. What a town.

06 August 2014

Irish Conversations: Two

The song rose while I was looking at the housekeeper's room in No. 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin: halting, not at all together, nowhere near on pitch.

"Happy -- hap -- happy birthday to --"

"Oh, shall we start again? We haven't made a very good go of this one." That was the older woman, Angela, I think, getting them to all stop. I could hear shuffling, and I wanted more than anything to dash out of the housekeeper's room and see what was going on in the little cafe/gift shop in the next room.

"But we've already lit the candles! I don't know if we want to go out and come back in again. It loses the moment a bit, don't you find?" I guessed that that was Fiona, the woman who'd welcomed me at the door to this restored Georgian house and had so carefully and quietly told me that I needed to put my bag in a locker. She had apologized three times for this, even though I told her it was all right every time.

"Oh, I suppose you're right," said Angela. "We'll just go again like that first try never happened, shall we?"

"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you..."

The second attempt wasn't any more in tune than that first, but at least they made it all the way through this one. I've heard that if you want to wash your hands for the properly hygienic amount of time, you should sing "Happy Birthday" in your head; it takes the required 20 seconds. But not when the workers of No. 29 are singing it. Your hands would be extra clean by the time they were done with their timid version.

But Richard—it was his birthday—didn't care. "Och, you all have outdone yourselves, and you didn't have to! It's just my birthday. And Angela, you've gone and made your caterpillar cake."

MY GOSH, why was I still in the housekeeper's room reading about how it was a coveted position in a household because you got your own room? I knew all of that from Downton Abbey anyway, but there was caterpillar cake in the next room. I don't even know what that is, but just hearing Richard talk about it, I knew it was special, and I knew he was most likely turning red from all the attention.

"But it's your 22nd birthday, Richard! That's something to celebrate!" Fiona said, and I laughed because the 22nd birthday is never one I've heard as something big to celebrate, but in the few moments I'd spent with Fiona, I had guessed that she was eager to make people feel both special and comfortable. I had also guessed that she would apologize to an inanimate object if she felt she'd gotten in its way.

Take her introduction to the video about No. 29.

"Now, I'm just going to turn on the little video we have here about the house. There's a long version and a short version, but the long version is only 15 minutes. That's just 5 minutes longer than the short version, but I guess if you're all done after 10 minutes, you could just get up and leave. There isn't anything too important in the last 5 minutes anyway. Not that it's bad if you want to watch the whole thing! No! The whole video is quite good, I find, and I do hope you think so, too, but it's all right if you don't. Well, I'll just turn it on now..."

And then Fiona backed out of the room and apologized for how her shoes scraped on the stone floor.

Even before the happy birthday singing, I had decided that this group of people at No. 29 were ripe for a sitcom. It would be called simply No. 29 and would be about the foibles and victories of this small, mismatched group that had become like a family working at the least visited site in Dublin.

No. 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street

I don't know if No. 29 is in fact the least visited site in Dublin, but it makes the show more touching and full of hilarious possibilities if they're the least visited. Imagine them trying to mount a Twitter campaign. Angela, the cook for the cafe, would most definitely use all the words related to Twitter wrong and say that "tweetering" other people seemed invasive and that you might as well be shouting at people on the streets, it was that rude. Eileen Atkins would play Angela, by the way.

There'd be an ongoing joke about how often Fiona apologized, and in every episode, there would be at least two moments that would make you cringe as the staff overwhelms the rare visitor and tries to get them to stay longer.

"Perhaps a cup of tea, then? We could take it in the housekeeper's sitting room, if you'd like. Or! If you'd rather pretend to be the lady of the house, we could go up to the morning room! That was quite fancy, wasn't it? You seem like you'd've been the lady of the house. We'll even let you sit on the furniture, even though the sign says you're not to."

That's not what happened to me, though—I should be clear that the nice, earnest group at No. 29 wanted nothing more than to make sure I had a good visit to their little museum.

When Fiona learned that I'd just flown in that day, she did offer me some coffee and a chair in the cafe, and then Angela came over with caterpillar cake, which, by the way, is cupcakes arranged to look like a caterpillar and decorated with toothpicks for antenna and gum drops for eyes.

When I told them that I was running a half-marathon on Monday, Angela exclaimed, "But Richard is doing that, too! Why, maybe you'll see him! Richard, come talk to the little American about the race you're doing together!"

Then more softly to me, Angela said, "He's been training for months. Eating all healthy and running in Lord knows what kind of weather. But he's nervous because he's never done anything like this before, so maybe you could have a word with him. Encourage him, like."

This is who would play Richard.

Richard, the recently turned 22-year-old, sprang across the cafe and shook my hand. "So, you're running, too, then? You look ready to go now!"

Fiona jumped in, "And imagine, she just got off the plane from America this morning!"

She would be the perfect Fiona.

Richard looked at me with new admiration and I just looked embarrassed. What should I say to "have a word with him"?

"How's your training been for the race?"

I've learned that with runners, they always want to talk about their training—usually complain a little about it, but I think that's often done to ward off anything bad happening {we runners are a superstitious lot}. As in: if the running gods hear you aching a little, they'll make your next few runs go smoothly.

Richard looked out the window at the rain that was coming down in sheets now. "It's been a lot of running in the rain, so I guess if I can do that, I can make it through the race. Don't you think?"

Here was reassurance I could easily give: "Oh, if you've put in the hours training, if you've been committed even when it's been raining, you'll be better than fine on Monday. All those hours running will be worth it when you cross the finish line."

All the staff seemed to have been waiting for me to say something just like that, and they all let out of a sigh of relief and started talking over one another, all telling Richard that he'd be just fine and to listen to me.

It was closing time, then, for No. 29, so I told Richard good luck for Monday and headed out into the rain. As the door shut behind me, I could hear them all above the clattering dishes as they cleared up from their party. They continued to reassure Richard that he had nothing to worry about in the race and that even if everything went wrong, they'd still be so proud of him.

PS I saw Richard in the half-marathon on Monday and ran with him for 1 1/2 miles or so. He was going to make it just fine.

05 August 2014

Irish Conversations: One

After the half-marathon ended in Phoenix Park, I needed to work my way back to Dollymount, out by the sea where I was staying. {And as I said "Dollymount" over the few days I was in Dublin, it started to sound more and more like a place out of Ulysses that I should know, but after awhile, I think everything in Dublin sounds like it belongs in Ulysses.}

The race ran a shuttle to the city centre—packed with sweaty, smelly runners, all clutching armloads of food from the finishers' festival and all wearing our medals proudly. I sat next to a girl from Manchester, who was impressed that I knew where Manchester is, and who was also in Dublin alone. We discussed the difficulties of selfies—how you want to get something interesting in them besides your face but how you feel a little silly lining it all up and trying to figure out where to look and my gosh, has my chin always been so prominent?

In the city centre, I walked to the 130 bus stop across from the Abbey Theatre. Away from a pack of other runners, I realized how out of place it looks to be wearing a medal, as if you've awarded yourself just for getting up and being fabulous. At the bus stop, an old man was looking nervously down the road.

"Do you think the bus is running today? It being a holiday and all?" He had on a blazer with elbow patches, and white hair stuck out haphazardly from under his fedora.

"I saw other buses out, so we should be okay. I'm sure it's coming soon," I reassured him.

"I've been waiting and waiting, and it still hasn't come. Do you think it will, then?" If this conversation went on much longer about waiting and hoping something comes, it would become a scene from Waiting for Godot.

"I do think so. I'm sure the bus is running on a Sunday schedule since it's a holiday, but it'll come." How was I speaking with such authority on the Dublin bus system? I'd only just figured it out the day before.

But he seemed satisfied with my answer and turned his eyes from the road to me. "So you've got a medal on, then."

"I do! I ran the Rock 'n' Roll Half-Marathon this morning." I resisted the urge to add: "Thanks for noticing."

He leaned back on his heels and gave a long "Ohhhhh!" as if he recognized what I was talking about, but I suspected he didn't. "A half-marathon, then. So you won and they gave you a medal. How nice."

How to explain participants' medals to a man from a generation that would never hand out awards just for showing up...And I think, too, that participants' medals smack of an American invention: We don't want anyone to feel like a loser, so we all get trophies, medals, and bragging rights. We all get to feel special, which you'd think would take away from our specialness, but it doesn't.

"Well, in a half-marathon, you get a medal just for finishing because it's a big accomplishment, running 13.1 miles."

"Yes, you are quite accomplished if you've won, then. Good job, girl. You're fit as a fiddle." He reached out for my hand, and I felt that we were having a private medals ceremony. Should I hum the National Anthem?

Or should I try to explain one more time that I didn't win? Heck, I didn't even have my best time ever in a half-marathon, but that's no matter: I spent the morning running through Dublin—past Christ Church, the Guinness Brewery, and a herd of perplexed deer in Phoenix Park—and if this man wanted to believe I'd won, I'd let him. I'm American, after all, despite my Irish roots, and we do love winning.

I took his hand, smiled, and said, "Thank you, and look, the bus has come!"

04 August 2014

What I Remembered about International Travel

On Friday night, I got on a plane in Chicago, bound for Dublin. It's been three years since I've taken an international flight. Oh, wait, I went to Canada. Several times. Canada, I know you're a different country, but I can fly to you in an hour, and that feels like cheating.

It's like when I came back in July from my trip to Stratford, Ontario, to visit my parents' new condo {and to see four shows in three days at the Stratford Festival}. It was, technically, an international flight: I needed a passport, there were forms to fill out, the announcements on the plane were made in English and Funny French. But it was on a regional jet, one of those tiny planes you think could double as your nephew's toy plane.

When we pulled into the international terminal at O'Hare, we were parked in between two double-decker British Airways planes. I imagined them maliciously laughing down at us, Goliaths against our David, as we got off the plane by stairs onto the tarmac. {Yes, the plane was that small that even a jetbridge would've overpowered it.}

When I say "international flight," then, what I mean is "transatlantic flight." It has indeed been three years since I've taken one of those, and Friday night, I remembered a few things about international travel.

{These are in no particular order.}

Delays are the end of the world as we know it, and no one feels fine. We all know that air travel is a risk—I mean, there's the obvious risk of zooming through the air at 35,000 feet, but also the general risk of logistics. Given the tight scheduling of most airlines today, it takes one thing to go wrong in one airport to throw off the whole schedule, particularly if that airport is a hub. I think this is the modern version of a butterfly flapping its wings in California and causing a tsunami in Japan: one plane has mechanical difficulties in Chicago, and suddenly, no one can get out of Denver.

Given the possibility for all that can go wrong, we should be applauding every time we are able to make it anywhere by plane. We should applaud humanity that we got our acts together enough to be able to put all the right people in all the right places—and then got those people to a new place.

But no one thinks about humanity when they hear the words: "We're so sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but the flight has been delayed. We're now showing a two hour delay."

When those words are uttered in an airport, the reaction is disproportionate to the cause. It's the equivalent of getting your hand amputated when you've scratched a finger.

When a delay is announced, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is anger and indignation as everyone seethes that this could happen to them, as if they had fairies weave a magic spell around them in the crib that they'd never be delayed. On Friday night, my plane was delayed because the pilot wasn't there yet. One guy—with a walrus mustache and high-waisted jeans with a t-shirt tucked into them—told the gate agent, "Heck, how hard can it be to fly a plane? Give me a manual and 20 minutes, and I'll get us to Dublin in no time. The computers do all the work anyway."

I'm sorry, sir, we are not in the world of HAL or Star Trek just yet, and I'm sorry for saying this, but I don't trust you or your mustache. I'd rather wait here in the gate, patient and trusting that the pilot will arrive—and we'll make it to Dublin safely.

And we did. We ended up being 3 1/2 hours late, but in the scheme of life, is it worth getting worked up over 3 1/2 hours? As my mother very wisely pointed out: my first day in Ireland was shorter, then, so I didn't have to try to push as hard to make it through the day and to a reasonable hour before I could go to bed.

You can indeed sleep in the craziest positions. I thank my years of gymnastics for my flexibility every time I sleep in coach.

We demand so much from air travel. This should go up closer to the first one about delays, I guess—but it's that my plane was old and sad. The TVs were the small, grainy monitors spaced every few rows or so, and the buttons on my armrest for the lights had been ripped off. I once flew Aeroflot out of Russia, and this plane felt like it might've belonged in their fleet. Everything about it seemed to sigh with resignation, and I spent some time on the flight thinking once again about how far we've come in our expectations of what we "deserve" on a flight. I thought longingly of the one time I flew Air France: care packages, hot towels, in-seat entertainment, and china—in coach.

That flight has been my standard for transatlantic travel for more than 10 years now, but even without that ridiculously high bar, we have a belief that while travelling, we deserve to be pampered. In some ways, it's like we think that when we pay for the privilege of flight, we should get treated like dukes and duchesses on board. Only the finest food, the best movies, and the most overhead luggage space will placate us, but you know what? We should just be happy that we can cross an ocean in the equivalent of a workday. That is amazing, so I'm sorry if the TV wasn't nice or if you thought the chicken was chewy. You were in the air. Above an ocean. On your way to Ireland. Take a moment and revel in how lucky you are.

{This part of the tirade owes much to Louis CK, who has such funny things to say on how we approach air travel now.}

As much as I love speaking French, there is something to be said for not having to speak it as soon as I get off the plane. And that something to be said is: C'est si bon. Most times when I go abroad, I'm going to France. Just off the plane, jet lagged and confused about what day it is, it takes all the brain power I have left to make sure I collect all my bags, let alone trying to conjugate verbs and give addresses to taxi drivers. Here, though, when I got off the plane, I understood everything! And they understood me! The taxi driver and I bonded over his desire to see Chicago, and I was able to clearly communicate concepts and even be funny without needing to pause and say, "Wait, wait, I know the word. Just give me a minute and the French will come back up from the deep recesses of my brain. Wait for it..."

I love it. This isn't actually something I needed to remember about international travel; it's an idea that's always with me. I love that one day, I can be at work, concerned about office gossip and finishing that project, and the next morning, I can unwind myself in coach, eat a quick breakfast, and step off the plane into a whole new country where possibilities await.

14 June 2014

so pretty today

Sometimes, it's the smallest moments that keep us smiling throughout the day.

Take Friday, for example. It was barely past 6am, and I was on my way to the train, heading to work for one more day. I was prepared for the small talk I knew awaited me at work: discussions of weekend plans, the beautiful weather, and how thankful we all were that it was Friday.

And it was a beautiful day out. This time of year—as we creep ever closer to the longest day of the year—the sun is starting to come up at 4:30 when I get up. By 6 when I leave, the world is glittering and fresh. Leaving home on a day like that, you remember what it was like to be a kid revelling in the beginning of a long summer. So much is possible.

Just outside the door, I ran into my upstairs neighbor, who was coming back from her morning walk. {We are a building of early risers, it seems.}

Jackie smiled at me and said, "So pretty today!"

I quickly said the requisite thank you and smiled back. I did feel pretty and had in fact put together a new outfit just that morning. A blazer was involved, but so was a stripey shirt I got in France 10 years ago and always makes me feel like I should be sailing.

Jackie paused, just ever so slightly before she said, "I meant the weather, but you also look nice today."

I laughed, oh, how I laughed at that, as I continued on my walk to the train. That is the small moment that kept me smiling throughout the rest of the day. Blazer and pretty new outfit aside, that comment alone kept me from taking myself too seriously that day.

09 June 2014

yes, chef: to culinary school I go

Julia Child was famous for encouraging us all to have fun in the kitchen—especially when we make mistakes. Most of the time, you're alone in the kitchen anyway, so who's to know if you dropped the eggplant on the floor or if the cake fell a little when it should've stayed puffy?

The important thing is the recovery: Are you able to laugh at yourself, and is the food salvageable? If yes to both, your meal is already three-fourths of the way to success. {The other fourth, I'm sure Julia would counsel, relies on how much butter you use.}

I often channel Julia in the kitchen; I certainly was the other night when I made wiener schnitzel for the first time. Of course that's not a French dish {that "wiener" is from the word Vienna, lest you think it was a hot dog schnitzel or something}, but if you ask me, cooking it—you're essentially deep frying it in peanut oil—takes much courage, something else Julia encouraged in us. As I stood fearfully next to the spattering oil, doing that thing where your body is poised to take flight, I took a deep breath. Flip the meat boldly, I told myself. Be confident. Own the meat.

I flipped with as much careful confidence as I could muster, but some of the oil still splattered on the floor, and I squealed and ran across the kitchen.

Not exactly owning the meat.

Little Pug, ever eager for anything that falls on the floor {manna from heaven, she must be thinking}, sped over to the hot oil—we're talking 350 degrees hot oil—and tried to lick it up. One tiny touch of the tongue, and she squealed and ran across the kitchen.

It's a wonder, isn't it, that dinner ever got made that night?

I thought, as I re-approached the wiener schnitzel: I hope they teach me how to safely fry meat in culinary school. This is clearly a life skill I'm lacking.

Ah, yes, culinary school! I'm going to culinary school, starting today. I'm sure you have questions about that because everyone I've talked to about this has had questions, so I've put together a handy FAQ. After you read this, let me know if you still have questions, and I'll happily answer them over wiener schnitzel.

Kamiah's Culinary Adventures: Frequently Asked Questions

Wait, don't you have a job?

I do! Thanks for noticing that I go somewhere every day and do stuff. I will still be working at my job and will be taking one class at a time. No need to bring too much stress to my life by trying to be some sort of super woman who can work full-time and take lots of classes and train for long-distance races and maintain deep friendships and be someone Little Pug loves. That'd be ridiculous and would make me into a very cranky person.

At this rate, I should finish this degree in...2019.

2019? That sounds like a science fiction year: so far from now.

2019 is a long time from now, but slow and steady wins the race, right? Unless you're running a real race, then that adage doesn't always apply. But in this culinary school thing we're talking about, it does apply: I'll take three classes a year and not be stressed out, something you should never be while cooking.

Let's return to how you're getting a degree. What are you going to do with it? Are you going to quit your job and open up a little cafe that will play French gypsy jazz all the time and be a cliche?

With this degree, I'm going to be a better cook. I don't plan on leaving my job, nor do I ever want to become a cliche. I love cooking, I love cooking for friends, and I love the richness of conversation and connection that opens up around good food. Going to culinary school is an opportunity to get better at what I love and at what excites me.

Are you still going to have me over for dinner? Or will cooking become like homework for you?

Please see the part of the answer above where I talk about how I love gathering people around my table. Yes, I will still have you over for dinner.

But will I have to pay for my dinner, now that you'll be a fancy chef?

Oh my gosh, that would be terrible and I'd lose all my friends. But remind me sometime to tell you about when I opened up a cafe at home. I was maybe 9, and I called it The Kid's Cafe. My cooking skills were limited, so the menu offered peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, and carrot sticks. I charged my family for their dinner, and the kicker was that of course, my parents were paying for the groceries. They paid for their dinner twice over, and it wasn't even that good. I'm sorry, family. I won't charge you ever again.

{I guess you don't have to remind me now to tell you that story because I just did.}

You bring up a good point about your cooking skills: I know you from back in the day {in this case, any time before I was 23}, and in my memory, you were a terrible cook. As in you had trouble with ramen noodles. You must've progressed since I saw you last.

Hi, long lost friend. I have progressed, and I owe it all to a cookbook called Cooking without Mom. No, that's the actual title, sad as it sounds. My mom got it for me when I moved to Wheaton, and it teaches you basics like:
  • how to make pancakes
  • how to cook vegetables so that they don't look like gray masses of sliminess
  • how to make several kinds of hearty casserole {I'm from Iowa, after all}
  • basic substitutions when you don't have what you need for a recipe
That cookbook is my foundation of cooking, and two years later, I was using The Art of French Cooking. This is such a ringing endorsement for Cooking without Mom that it should be on the back cover—if it's even still published.

And dear, dear long lost friend, please come over for dinner. I'll make up for those years when I served you poorly cooked ramen.

What sorts of classes will you take?

I'm going to the Culinary and Hospitality Center at the College of DuPage {aka, the community college that is larger than my hometown}, and it's a very hands-on program. That sounds obvious; how else would you learn to cook if you didn't use your hands?

I mean that after one class of cooking and kitchen basics, I will be cooking for the student-run cafe at COD—paying customers! So soon in my culinary career! The program has a stepping stone approach as you build your knowledge and responsibilities in the kitchen until you're doing your capstone class: cooking French food for the fancy-schmancy restaurant at COD.

I get to take classes on things like:
  • baking and pastries: I will be able to make my own pain au chocolat. Finally.
  • international cuisine: That's everything that's not French, fyi.
  • culinary measurements and conversions: Math that applies to my real life! {Sorry, accountant parents who do math in your real lives every day, that I'm just now discovering math that I would consider "practical."}
  • how to shop for a restaurant: If I learn any tips for home kitchen shopping, I'll pass them along.

Who are your cooking heroes?

Isn't it obvious?

And yes, I did purposely choose a picture of Meryl Streep playing Julia Child.

Bon appetit!

07 June 2014

please come linger

This is my summer of creating a welcoming, lush, please-stay-awhile space on my balcony. You can read about that here, where I talk about slowing down and not putting so many high demands on myself, even in what kinds of plants I have too take care of. There's a bonus rant about the state of language now, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

With that goal in mind, I spent last Sunday afternoon potting Creeping Jenny vine. Spending even just an hour with your hands in dirt is good for your soul, especially if you come from somewhere like Iowa.

I put the vines in little terra cotta pots, and then I made hangers for them out of twine—a stroke of genius worthy of Pinterest, if you ask me {even though I don't have Pinterest}. This was genius brought on by cheapness, by the way: Why pay $6 for a ready-made hanging pot when you can pay $.78 and tie some twine around it? As a bonus, it looks very homey and natural, which is just the look I'm going for.

I hung the little pots off an old baker's rack I've been storing in my garage for six years, just sure that at some point in the future, I'd find a use for it again. That may be how hoarding begins, I know, but I really couldn't bear to part with such a practical piece of furniture, and look! The hoarding paid off.

And think of this: It can also be used as a sideboard during meals on the balcony. Practicality and frugality are two traits that blend so beautifully, aren't they?

{Also, please keep me from becoming a real hoarder and do an intervention if necessary.}

My balcony now is just the kind of place you'd like to linger in. You'll want to drink lemonade and eat Caprese salad here. Even when the mosquitoes come out in full force later this summer, you'll still want to be here; that's how inviting it is.

So please come linger. I promise to have lemonade and to not talk about hoarding, unless you want to.

06 June 2014

D-Day with Dave

I first met Dave in an oil painting class I took not long after I moved to Wheaton. I had no friends, the obvious downside to moving somewhere new, and I'd always heard that if you want to make new friends, you should join clubs and groups to get to know people. I think I read this in Dear Abby, who rarely steers you wrong; the idea is that even if you don't make new friends, you will have done something worthwhile or learned something new, as opposed to just sitting at home feeling lonely.

I joined an oil painting class because I'd always wanted to learn how to do that. My artistic skills were rather stymied once we got into drawing anything that wasn't a tree in my middle school art class, so I wasn't sure how good I could be at this oil painting thing.

The year before, when I'd been living in Rouen, France, there was an oil painting studio I passed on the rue Eau de Robec every day on my walk through town, almost always slowing down to study the advertisement for oil painting lessons. I'd see other people in there, painting still lives of pears or loaves of bread, and a panic would rise up in me about doing something I wasn't very good at and trying to do it in French.

Beyond the fact that I didn't know the vocabulary needed for oil painting—why didn't Madame Warner teach me brush-related nouns back in high school French class?—I just knew that I would panic about verb conjugations and end up with a painting that the teacher would politely pretend was supposed to be some homage to abstract expressionism.

My first night in my Wheaton oil painting class, I found myself explaining this French story to Dave, who looked to be older than my grandpa and who was making a drawing of a covered bridge in pastels. I watched him work, colors flying across the page, but I was slightly perplexed as to what he was doing in an oil painting class if he was using pastels. And he was good—this man needed no lessons. His covered bridge made me think of Iowa and Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County {not bad things to be thinking about}, even as I told him my Rouen and Eau de Robec studio story.

As usually happens when we tell stories about things that happened to us in Europe, I was giving everything this Monet glow: the cafe I walked to, the woman I bought flower from every Sunday morning at the market, what the cathedral looked like in the late afternoon winter sun.

"Rouen, huh?" Dave interrupted. He said Rouen as many Americans do: Rue-anne.

I smiled at him, "Yes, it's a town in the north part of France, which is called Normandy. Where Joan of Arc was killed." I offered this as if it were the most important fact about Rouen, the one thing that would make people say, "Oh, that Rouen! Of course!"

"Oh, I've been there," Dave said quietly as he chose a bold, deep red for the bridge.

I get excited when anyone has been to Rouen; it's an instant bond, one that makes me think this new friend and I can now speak in code of shared memories of what it was like to walk on those cobblestone streets. I started to pump Dave for information. "Really? What did you do there? When did you visit? Isn't it so wonderful to sit at a cafe and look up at the cathedral?"

"Didn't sit in too many cafes then...I was just passing through, actually. It was in June 1944."

June. 1944. In Normandy.

He never looked up from his drawing this whole time, and I never stopped looking at him: This almost 90-year-old man who'd been coming to the oil painting group at the Wheaton Park District for 25 years just because he liked the people, even if he didn't want to oil paint anymore—this man with the watery blue eyes and who, I would learn, wore a University of Illinois sweatshirt every week to class—this man was in the D-Day invasion.

"Wow, so you...stormed the beach at Normandy?" The words sounded overly dramatic, as if I'd only picked them up by watching movies made about that time.

Up until that moment, I'd never met anyone who'd been at D-Day. My grandpa had been in World War II; he was in the Army Air Corps and was stationed in North Africa, where he worked as a cryptographer. When I'd ask him about the war, he'd tell me funny stories of camel races in the desert and how he met a British officer with his same name, Ronald Walker. My grandpa would hoot with laughter as he told us that he'd go over to the British camp with the British Ronald Walker—just to have their better beer. {And the British Ronald Walker would come to the American camp to eat our better food.}

My grandpa left behind an album with grainy pictures of Tunisia, palm trees, and men in uniform we'll never know. I wondered, that first night in oil painting, if Dave had an album at home with grainy pictures of Rouen. I wondered briefly if he even would've been allowed a camera in the invasion.

"Yep, I was there." He said this casually, as you might mention being at a football game or at the Dairy Queen. "My men and I, we were in the second wave, and then we marched on in across that beautiful French countryside."

Well, "marched on in," except for the bloodshed and except for the constant gunfire and except for the landmines on the beaches. And yes, the French countryside is beautiful—it's hard to look at it now and imagine armies and tanks in the place of the cows.

Dave downplayed his role in D-Day, and like the good Midwesterner I am, I didn't want to press for details he didn't seem willing to offer up. Instead, I focused on sketching a bird—my teacher had told me to start with that—and waited patiently to see if he'd tell any stories, encouraged, perhaps, by my quiet attentiveness.

He was and he did.

Over the next several years I was in that oil painting class, Dave told stories of the French people he met.

He talked about the time he'd accidentally shaved with some of the famous Normandy apple cider; he'd thought he was pouring water in to mix with his shaving soap, but oh no, it was the cider. Those watery blue eyes of his would crinkle in delight as he laughed, "I smelled so good after that, the men poked fun at me for wearing perfume!"

He and I talked about the green, lush, rolling hills of the Normandy pastures, and he said at one point that he did remember that cathedral in Rouen. But Dave never really talked about what it was like on the beach that day, beyond a gruff, "We did what we had to do" one night when I asked if he had been scared.

Today, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, makes me think of Dave, who I haven't seen much in several years. I no longer go to oil painting, but sometimes I run into him at the gym, lifting weights and riding the stationary bike while wearing an age-worn shirt from the Grand Canyon.

I look at him, hunched over the bike as his spindly legs peddle as fast as they can, and I think: You helped make history by doing "what had to be done."

And we're all so thankful you did.

31 May 2014

Main Street in May: a summer drink

The drink tastes like summer in America, when the days are long and the twilight conversations longer.

The waiter had described it as pink lemonade for grown-ups, which is an odd distinction to make because I've always thought of pink lemonade itself as the grown-up version of regular lemonade. It's certainly a more mature drink than a lemon shake-up, that glass full of sugar and just a hint of tart.

I know, of course, that the waiter meant that the drink tastes a lot like pink lemonade and just so happens to have alcohol in it: St-Germain Elderflower and some kind of gin.

I don't know what kind of gin because I stopped paying attention to the waiter's spiel after he said St-Germain Elderflower. I have discovered that I love any drink with that in it, and I know that part of the reason I love it is because it's French. St-Germain—even if we pronounce it "Saint Germane" here in America, I believe it's germane to point out that I can never see that word without thinking of St-Germain-des-Pres in Paris and how there's a perfume shop there, Fragonard, that I visit on every trip. I know it's time to start planning a trip back to France when I run low on my Bleu Riviera perfume, and may I just point out that I have been out of that for months now?

St-Germain Elderflower, some gin, grapefruit juice, and a little grapefruit rind. Mix it all together {in who knows what proportions; I'm no help there}, and you get this drink that tastes like summer in America.

It tastes like cool early mornings that become distant memories by the time noon hits and the heat is on high.

It tastes like cook-outs and impromptu meals cobbled together with friends. You have meat and I have a salad and she has fresh fruit with fresh-whipped cream and together, we have an easy night when we stay up way too late, considering it's a school night.

That drink tastes like hot cement under your feet, the Fourth of July, and that tired muscle ache you get after you work in the yard on Saturday afternoon.

It's called Main Street in May, this summer drink, and as I took that first sip, cool and tart, while looking out the window at Main Street of my little town, I thought: Ahhh.

There was no better word for it.

30 May 2014

dear plants on my balcony: on slowing down

Dear Plants on My Balcony,

I know you probably don't care about this {How could you? You're plants.}, but 2014 is my year of paring down. By limiting how much I do and schedule, I'm trying to slow down my life, a thing I very much need in this busy world.

You may not know this {again, because you're plants and the world you interact with is a constant one of soil, sun, and water}, but our world has become increasingly frantic, disjointed, and harried.

This is proven by our 24-hour news cycle that jolts us from story to story in 30-second chunks: Are we unable to focus now?

Our disjointed world is proven by a new syntax that is developing because Internet. That was it, by the way—the new way of speaking that chops out words and snappily contains these sardonic concepts. Even Hemingway himself—he the great papa of shortened, punchy prose—would look verbose and flowery in this world of fragments and odd punctuation. All. The. Time. {Why so many periods? Why such a need for emphasis and full stops? Is our new punctuation trying to tell us that we need to take more pauses?}

Our frantic world is proven by our hyperbole that pairs so well with that new way of talking and writing. Every experience, interaction, meal, vacation, weekend, video, song, Facebook post is so. Over. The. Top.

Because clicks.

Because likes.

Because feeling popular.

We toss around phrases like "the most amazing ever," and why is that? Is it because we are ever looking for that emotional high, that smooth, easy, enviable life promised us by movies and Hallmark commercials? Are we tricked into describing everything as better than best because we're frightened of appearing boring, let alone being bored?

And think about this: If that pizza you just ate is "amazingly awesome," what phrase will you use when you see the red rocks of Utah on a perfectly blue sky day? Or when you feel the ocean rush in around your calves as you look out at the sunrise and think about how deep and wide that ocean is? What will you say when your baby smiles at you the first time?

What words do we have left when our language is so bulked up with superlatives?

Beyond diminishing those big experiences, this hyperbole can also make our small moments seem just that: Small. Unworthy. Not enough. If we're always looking for the next best, will we overlook that moment sitting on the balcony in the summer twilight as the fireflies are blinking—little stars here on earth—as the cicadas are singing?

And we're back to the balcony, dear plants, which is where you come in—or more correctly, where you are.

You're probably confused as to why I just went off on a rant about syntax and the Internet {when you were expecting a nice welcome letter, maybe}, but it all does relate to you.

Every summer since I moved in to my condo six years ago, I have tried to grow bright, cheerful flowers on my balcony. Some years have been moderately successful, but most years have involved brown leaves, flowers that don't thrive, and much disappointment.

I go into the season dreaming contentedly of being surrounded by color and life as I do the Saturday morning crossword and drink French press coffee. It may just be a balcony, but I believe every year that I can make it feel like an English garden: Structured but inviting, tended but with just a touch of wild.

Then July comes, and I'm sorry to tell you, my plants, but I kill you. I have killed your cousins or best friends or whoever, despite my best intentions and hard work and desire to be a good gardener.

This might seem really meta, but here's a letter I wrote to my flowers a few years ago {a letter within a letter!}. You can hear my disappointment and bewilderment, as well as my realization that even if you oh-so-fervently desire something, it might not come to pass. I might not be a good gardener, and I need to accept this.

So here we are in the year of paring down, and I'm applying it even to my balcony foliage. Look around you: There are no flowering plants among you, you ferns and succulents. When I went plant shopping this year—Monday night after work, a night when it looked like it was just about to rain and then it never did—I looked only for tags that said "Easy Care!" or "Low Maintenance!"

I'm writing you now, green plants, to say that—no pressure—but you're part of my slowing down plan. In our frantic, disjointed, harried world, I'm trying to create space that is low-pressure, calming, and doesn't demand much. When I sit out on my balcony, I don't want to see something I should be trying harder to manage and take care of; instead, I want to admire verdant life as I sit with a glass of wine.

In summary, PLEASE don't die on me, my dear plants. I will give you water, and I've put you where you can see the sun. I'll tend you as best I can, which is all any of us can ask.

Now let's all relax, slow down, and have a non-dead plant summer, one where I sit surrounded by your green life. If you'd like, I'd even read to you from books that resound with the beauty of our language, ones that echo with true things, so that we can remember that our world wasn't always too busy to take the time to express a good idea slowly.

Ever yours,

24 May 2014

on managing appearances

The moment the doorbell rang, I froze. She wasn't supposed to be here yet, was she? Hadn't we said 6:30? And here it was barely past 6, but my doorbell was ringing. She must be here, of course, and the door must be answered, but I hadn't eaten dinner yet and there was that final pass-through of the house to do still—the one where you sweep everything you don't want someone else to see into a closet or under a bed. Anywhere is fine so long as it's not visible.

I am not hyper obsessed with appearances, although I do realize that by saying that, I have just discredited myself. By saying that, I have made you equate me with Martha Stewart, my hostess smile pasted on as I coo gently about how quickly I threw this party together when really what everyone at the party is thinking is: "Are those centerpieces made out of hand-carved acorns? I didn't know you could get such detailed pictures onto something as small as an acorn."

Let's be clear: I am not Martha Stewart, my smile is real, I can't carve acorns, and I am not hyper obsessed with appearances. It's just that when someone comes over, I like to look like I put some effort into getting ready for their visit.

Move the mail pile.

Fold the blanket on the couch, still laying there from when I fell asleep on the couch the other night (because I have apparently become my mother, who falls asleep many a night in her easy chair).

Wash up the wine glass, also leftover from the other night and perhaps related to the falling asleep on the couch.

Okay, wine glassES, plural, because it's been a couple of nights that I've been working on that bottle of red wine.

I know that if my friends saw that I'm sometimes messy and that I don't always pick up after myself, they'd still love me. They'd still have a lovely time at my house (unless we got in a fight, which is highly unlikely). They wouldn't look at my mail pile and think: This girl disgusts me.

I do that final pass-through for the same reason I plan menus for meals for friends: because in the very act of planning or cleaning, I get to spend time thinking about whoever is coming over. I get to anticipate the conversation and think about the last time we saw each other and what we need to catch up on. I get to think about our friendship and celebrate—in my own little planning way—what that friend brings to my life. By being prepared for the visit, food-wise and clean home-wise, I get to thrive in those hospitality gifts I seem to have.

I know what you're thinking: You get all that from planning out what you'll eat with a friend and moving your mail pile? Yeah, right. You're just trying to justify yourself and make this inability to invite people into messiness sound like a deep and good thing.


Maybe it is more about a control thing and not wanting people to see the unpolished edges or the unwashed wine glasses.

The night that my doorbell rang 30 minutes early, I looked around at the dog toys strewn around the living room. I saw the recycling I needed to take out and the dust rag I had left where it was last used (because throwing it into the laundry basket would be a step too far, I guess). Through my open bedroom door, I saw the laundry that had yet to be put away. And before Katie came over, I had wanted to wipe down the kitchen table and counters.

Never mind that now—no time for it. Katie was at my door, and when I opened it, her eyes didn't sweep over the mess and then flicker with disappointment. Instead, they lit up as she said, arms reaching out for a hug, "Hello, friend. So good to see you!" And she stepped into my home—my not-company-ready-home—and continued, "I always love coming over here. You always make me feel so at home."

What am I trying to get at here? That we shouldn't both cleaning up for guests? That I need to relax and let some mess exist? That I have wonderful friends?

What I'm trying to get at is this: It's okay that I like to do that final pass-through and make sure everything is just so before someone comes over. For me, it really is about welcoming people into my home and wanting them to feel at home there.

But what I need to remember before I get tripped up on expending too much energy "managing appearances" is that people don't come over to see my shining surfaces. They come to see me, and you know what? I can be a little messy at times, and it can be so good to have someone step into the middle of that with me and say, "Hello, friend. So good to see you!"

21 May 2014

an ode to a new pen: or, the joy of everyday objects

In terms of joy office supplies can bring, a new pen is second only to a new notebook. And oh, the thrill in a day that brings both a new pen and a new notebook: I would burst with the writing possibilities, if that were possible.

The new pen that I got today has that smooth, roller-ball ink flow that makes everything you write look important. The first time I put it to paper, my hand practically twitched with a desire to create something that would last generations.

And yet what I was writing was my to-do list for the day, and it was full of words and phrases that wouldn't make sense to anyone outside my company, let alone someone ages and ages hence. What I was writing with this new pen would just end up crossed off and thrown in the recycling bin at the end of the day, but I'm telling you, it was the boldness of the ink that made me want to switch to writing poetry or a letter to a long-lost friend. In the scratching of the pen on paper, I could almost hear a story beginning.

Why is it that things—and having the right thing to do a task—makes us feel like we are better able to do that task? I've thought of this before: What is it about having the right pen that puts me in the mood for writing?

Why do I feel like it has to be a certain kind of notebook, with a certain kind of line, before I can settle in to a writing mood?

This is all bordering dangerously on a self-judgmental tirade about how I use excuses for not writing. That's not where I intend to head.

I'm more aimed at this idea: I am what Laurie Colwin calls a "domestic sensualist," someone who drinks in the beauty of everyday objects and realizes that a pen, just an ordinary pen, can hold so much more than ink. These objects that we surround ourselves with can tell stories about the most normal, uneventful days of our lives, and that is why getting a new pen, one that writes so smoothly, can feel so momentous. It is a thing of beauty and possibility that we can touch every day.

That is also why I set the table for even weeknight meals with my grandparents' wedding china {a Noritake pattern with a pink rose and gold leaf} and why I use a demitasse spoon and a white cup and saucer for my morning coffee, even though it's just me and even though I'm in a hurry. Living with and using pretty, meaningful objects brings delight to even the dullest of days, and it helps me remember to look for beauty on those days when nothing seems to shine.

The new pen I got is just an object; it is just a utilitarian thing that I can use to craft my to-do list and write notes to myself. But it also creates a daring, bold line that seems to want to declare something, write something, live something.

Even though it's just a pen, it can remind me of this: Sometimes, we do the most mundane, routine things with the most mundane, routine objects—and we are flooded with joy at the mere ordinary beauty of it all.

17 May 2014

never take a pug to a carnival

"But seriously, imagine this: A pug on a Ferris wheel is an awesome mental picture."

This is pretty much the level of conversation I'm up for an a Friday night—dreaming about adorable pug pictures that would instantly go viral.

With some coaxing, I might also be up for talking about how my day went or what I'm looking forward to over the weekend, but let's face it, by Friday night, I just want to wear my pajama pants and lay on the couch.

On this particular Friday night, I was doing just that, only replace the pajama pants with workout clothes. By some burst of energy miracle, I had made it to the gym after work, where, while doing sit-ups and push-ups and calf raises, I imagined that I was already at home, curled up under an afghan knitted by my great-grandmother.

Workout motivation tip: You know how you're supposed to envision how you want your workout to go? I do this when I have a race: I imagine what the race will be like, including such realistic details as "that panicked feeling you get when you realize you need to spit but that there are too many people around to do it safely."

A little mental preparation can help in a big way, but then I've found that when you're actually in the midst of your workout/run, it's best to imagine what you'll be doing later. Pep talks can only get you so far; it's far better to imagine the coffee you'll drink at brunch after the race {and the bacon! Never forget to think about the bacon!}.

Or in the case of my Friday night workout, it was better to think about laying down and not having to think or do much of anything for the rest of the night. Distract yourself: That's my workout motivation tip, one I hope you'll use and report back to me about how wonderfully it worked.

So I was on the couch, texting a good friend who was being a good sport about my typical Friday-evening-randomness, when the pug on a Ferris wheel image came to me and I sent her that message above.

You're probably either in awe of my imagination or concerned for my thought process {I'm assuming the former, by the way}, so I will offer this by way of explanation for my pug image: The carnival is in town.

Doesn't that explain everything? How could I walk past a Ferris wheel every day on my way to the train and not think of how a pug would react to spinning high above her town in what is essentially a swinging bucket?

{You're thinking about it now, too, aren't you?}

Here's how the conversation went:
Me: I am about to walk Miss Daisy, but then I really need to eat. You know those times when nothing sounds good? This in one of those times.

Allow me to jump in here and say—I had so much to eat at home. There was roast chicken and vegetables, eggplant gratin, a salad with an orange balsamic vinaigrette, and pear clafoutis. I could've made French toast or an omelet or a grilled cheese sandwich. Heck, I could've eaten cereal.

But every time I thought of something to eat, my inner toddler screamed, "NO!" That girl is so demanding and picky sometimes.

Me: BUT WAIT: I just had an excellent dinner thought. The carnival is in town. CORNDOG.

Patient Friend Who Listened to My Dinner Decisions and Hopefully Didn't Roll Her Eyes: Corndog all the way. If I were with you, I'd get a funnel cake. And cotton candy.

That response proves why we're friends and why I'm 99% sure she wasn't rolling her eyes at my dinner quandary: because she gets just as excited by food as I do.

Me: Then Daisy and I shall ride the Ferris wheel.

Patient Friend: Hahahahaha....

Me: But seriously, imagine this: A pug on a Ferris wheel is an awesome mental picture.

And to the carnival we went, my pug and I. The night was cool—shockingly cool for mid-May, and I don't just mean that I had to wear a light spring jacket. I mean that it had snowed earlier in the day, an occurrence that flummoxed us all, even though we have just survived the coldest, snowiest winter I can remember. Snow in mid-May? What are we, Minnesotan?

I formed a plan as I walked over: if there were a lot of people at the carnival, Daisy and I would keep walking and I would force myself to suck it up and eat some roast chicken at home, even though that is no corndog. Crowds tend to overwhelm her, and I didn't know how safe it would be for a pug in a carnival. She might be taken in by one of the carnies, unaware that the games were fixed and she'd most likely not win a new stuffed animal.

But the cool night kept most people away from the carnival because who wants a lemon shake-up when the temperature is much closer to freezing than you'd like to admit? Giving Daisy a few notes on dealing with carnies, I walked her up to the corndog stand.

As I paid, I felt her tug on the leash, and I looked down to see an absolutely panicked pug staring up at the Ferris wheel.

It must've been the bright lights—don't they draw us all in? But given how Daisy was rooted to the ground, frozen as all those bright lights twinkled towards her from the slowly-rotating Ferris wheel, I can only assume that it looked like some sort of giant fireball coming straight at her.

While I know she couldn't possibly have understood that 1) I had suggested taking her on a Ferris wheel, 2) I had most definitely been joking when I said that, and 3) pugs aren't allowed on Ferris wheels to begin with, I still felt bad for even thinking about it. You would've, too, if you'd seen her cower from the Ferris wheel. In fact, if you had been there, you probably would've been yelling at me at this point and taking away my corndog.

I bent down to reassure Miss Daisy, and my movement broke her spell. She looked away from the fireball, shook her head, and suddenly realized that all around her was a magic land of dropped food. French fries. Corndog sticks that still had some breading on them. And her favorite: chewed gum.

She did her spin of excitement and took to licking everything she could find that looked like food, and even some things that were clearly just rocks.

Oh, the carnival! It holds such possibility, doesn't it? One minute, you can be rigid with terror and the next moment, you can be eating bad-for-you food. This is what we all know about the carnival, and this is what Miss Daisy experienced for the first time on Friday night.


PS I was going to insert a picture of a pug on a Ferris wheel, but the Internet holds no such picture that I can find. I believe this is an untapped adorable picture market.

I did, however, discover through auto-fill {you know, when Google tries to guess ahead to what you're searching for, based on what other people have searched for} that the following searches are popular {as they should be}:
  • "pugs riding in cars"
  • "pugs riding unicorns"
  • "pug riding a Roomba"
  • "pugs in The Hobbit"
  • "pugs in fancy dress"


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