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"

14 May 2014

how not to fuel for a long run

After years of running, you would think I would have some things down pat.

And I do, mostly—things like gauging my pace, when to get new shoes, and what kind of socks are best.

But then there's the whole eating thing—the fueling thing more precisely. Before a longer run, you quite obviously have to eat or you will hate yourself about 25 minutes in as your energy level nosedives. You will question why you ever thought running was fun, and you'll cry when you realize the only way home is on your already-leaden legs. Or by hitchhiking, but we're a wary culture now, and that doesn't work as well as it did in the 60s.

I know. I have been there {not trying to hitchhike on the side of a running path—although I have successfully hitchhiked twice, but that was in Europe and is a story for another time}.

From the moment you start to feel light-headed, the berating begins, sometimes mental, sometimes out loud, as you work through this incredibly poor choice you made to not fuel well.

I've figured out that the best fuel for me is a banana and peanut butter toast. I know this as surely as I know my Little Pug looks adorable in sweaters.

But in the early mornings before a run, that doesn't always sound good. In fact, food rarely sounds good right when I get up; I may be a morning person overall, but my stomach definitely is not.

My stomach is more of a lady of leisure. It prefers to wake up slowly, ease into the day {by reading in bed, maybe}, and then, with sunlight streaming through the thrown-open French doors, it prefers to have a light breakfast served to it.

In other words: I almost never want to eat until I've been up a couple of hours, and even then, I'd prefer my food were brought to me by a servant.

Ladies of leisure probably don't do long runs, though, and I need to eat as soon as I get up before heading out on a run.

This is what happened before I went on a 12-mile run the other day: I told my stomach, "Get it together and accept that you're going to eat now. If your biggest problem today is that you need to eat peanut butter, you're doing pretty okay in life."

Intimidation was the wrong tactic to take, and I barely got down half a piece of toast and part of a banana. Ignoring the feeling I was going to throw up, I headed outside, hoping against hope that it would be enough energy for the run.

It wasn't.

I made it the whole 12 miles, but I spent part of it scheming ways I could find sugar along the running path. Options included:
  • Stopping at the 7-11 along the way and begging for a Twinkie. Of course I didn't bring money with me on a run at 6am, but I thought that if I looked really trustworthy and earnest, they'd give me one, and I'd return later with the 63 cents I owed them.
  • Same plan as the 7-11, but this time at the French Market. I would beg a pain au chocolat from the nun who speaks mostly French. This plan would have the double benefit of allowing me to practice my French.
  • Licking candy bar wrappers I saw on the side of the path. That is disgusting, and no, I didn't really think of doing that, although given how your reasoning abilities disappear when your blood sugar is low, I'm frankly surprised I didn't consider this.
  • Stopping by my church and banging on the locked doors yelling "Sanctuary!" until someone let me in. Then I'd go straight to the cafe and drink all the dairy products we normally serve on Sunday with our coffee and tea. Heck, I would even drink the soy milk.

Scheming kept me going, step after step, and I made it 12 miles without fainting and in a pretty good time.

And as soon as I got home, I opened up a jar of Cookie and Cocoa Butter and ate it by the spoonful. I even put some on my leftover Easter Peeps and got a sugar influx so intense, I felt like I could run another 12.

Which of course I didn't. One of the food-related things I am good at in running is post-run eating, so after my sugar fest, I made myself a 2-egg omelet and went about the rest of my day.


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