Categories
New Year

I Recommend

This Little Red Hen has spent a great deal of the past year with her beak tipped to the clouds, anxiously clucking “The sky is falling!”

I could detail the challenges of 2016, but we all know what happened. For some people, it actually wasn’t that tough of a year. Their presidential candidate won the electoral vote; their pretty lives still feel pretty; their heroes didn’t die. They watch their shows on cable, eat some take-out, shoot some cans off a fence post. 

However, for the people whose voices fill my ears most frequently, 2016 was devastating. Gutting. Wrenching. A betrayal of fundamentals. For us, the candidate who won the electoral vote is a horrifying example of everything except narcissism and late-night Twitter insanity. At those, he excels. My head nodded hard when I read the words of Thessaly La Force, editor-in-chief at Garage, when she noted of Donald Trump: “Given how he’s stacked the administration with men whose careers have never reflected the kind of world I want to live in nor the one that I want for the generations who will follow me — I don’t have much hope at the moment.” This is not a liberal snowflake’s whining complaint. Progressives weren’t thrilled with Reagan or the Bushes, either, but the reservations there were purely political; with Trump, it’s different. With Trump, the objections are moral, mental, social, ethical. With Trump, there is a sense of foreboding. With Trump, we will have a petulant toddler — his dyed melon peeping over the top of the wheel — steering the ship.

For us, many of whom also enjoy pretty lives and a greasy box of take-out lo mein, the continuing disparity between our random luck and others’ lack of it is crushing. We see the news about Syria and think not, “It’s their business; keep it over there” but, rather, “Those poor people, being strangled by the tentacles of an epic tragedy. Can anything be done? What can be done?”

For many of us, indeed, 2016 felt like a series of punches to the ribs — with the deaths of Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Dan Haggerty (Grizzly Adams, anyone?), Phife Dawg, Pat Harrington (Schneider!), Garry Shandling, Patty Duke, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel, Garry Marshall, Gene Wilder, Janet Reno, Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, Sharon Jones, Florence Henderson, Fidel Castro, Ron Glass, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael, Ricky Harris, Richard Adams, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. As the hilarious and zesty Elizabeth Hamilton-Argyropoulos summed up:

It’s a wonder this Little Red Hen didn’t drown in the rain, so frequently was her beak turned upwards, her mournful cluck echoing through the birches.

But I didn’t drown this year, and the sky is still affixed above my head — for, as much as it taxed, 2016 also rewarded. Always, always, always, there is good. In the small moments, away from the news and the clamor of online distress, I found joy and escape; I found intelligence and laughter; I connected, expanded, learned, and played. Here, then, are a few highlights and recommendations:

Books: Goodreads tells me I read something like 60 books in 2016, and when I consider that I also read the work of 12 sections of writing-based classes (25-35 students in each section, usually writing 6 papers each, most of which can be revised and resubmitted, along with daily and weekly smaller assignments) and that my bifocals, no matter how much the doc ups my prescription, always leave the words blurry and my eyes squinty, I am impressed with myself. In a few days, I will be having LASIK eye surgery (I’M SO SCARED, BUT THEY SAY THEY WILL GIVE ME A HAPPY PILL, AND I’VE NEVER TAKEN A HAPPY PILL BEFORE, SO MAYBE IT WILL HIT ME HARD, AND I’LL CHUCKLE QUIETLY AS THE LASER CUTS MY EYEBALL OPEN); to be honest, I love the accessory of glasses frames, and I don’t particularly love my looks without them, but, as my pal Ellen has been known to say, “Sometimes my face gets tired of glasses.” And sometimes — lots of times — I’d like to be able to see when I wake up, see when it’s cold or rainy and I’m outside, see clearly and not through smudges and scratches. Since I’ll need cheaters for reading, and since I read about half of the hours of my life, I’ll just enjoy frames on my face that way. Anyhow, as I was saying, I read some books this year. Some of them were overrated (Sweetbitter and The Girls, I’m lookin’ at you), some were not worth the time (The Mountain Story made me shouty), some were intriguing but uneven (We Love You, Charlie Freeman), but many of them were glory. 

  • Loitering: New & Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio — I do appreciate a writer who uses all the words available to him, and D’Ambrosio’s vocabulary is rich. But that’s not why I love his writing. Dude is smart and honest and teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for a reason. There is no easy slapping of words on the page with him. He’s a craftsman. Here’s an interview with him from The New Yorker: “Instead of Sobbing, You Write Sentences.”
  • Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe — This charming novel works as a stand-alone, but it is the sequel to Stibbe’s earlier Man at the Helm (equally charming). In her latest, Stibbe continues the story of 15-year-old Lizzie as she takes a job at a home for senior citizens. I do enjoy a wild cast of characters, their appeal hinging on their myriad flaws.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles — This was probably my most-satisfying read of the year. Due to the strife in public discourse, I have been leaning more easily into writing that is “sweet,” and there’s something perfectly, not sappily, sweet about this story of a Bolshevik-era Russian count sentenced to live out his days inside a hotel. From first to last pages, this novel provided everything I wanted.
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi — Many people still don’t understand what’s being discussed when the word “racism” is used. The discussion is not about you, the individual, avowing you take each person as he/she comes, no matter the skin color. Rather, the discussion is about deeply ingrained systems that make success in life easier for people if they are white. Go to any institution in the United States — yeah, we have the portraits of presidents to gaze upon, but also look back at the faces of all the presidents of the college you attended, the heads of the bank you put your money into, the CEOs of the major corporations you patronize. Take a minute to scan the photos of their faces. 97% of those faces will be white and male. That’s racism; that’s privilege; that’s the heart of the discussion: what needs to change so that everyone has an equal shake at success? To get our heads around racism, it’s necessary to look beyond current realities and consider how they came into being. Okay, so black men kill each other at incredibly high rates. Violence in many communities of color decimates the lives of inhabitants. WHY IS THAT? Read Homegoing, an easy-to-absorb generational tracking of two African women (one of whom is sold into slavery and one of whom is not) and their descendants. Connect the dots. The injustices of the past have lasting resonance.
  • Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements by Bob Mehr — Too often, rock journalism seems promising, but then, not halfway through, I lose interest. This empathetic dissection of one of my favorite groups, in particular the dark difficulty of lead singer Paul Westerberg, kept me invested ’til the end.
  • The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits — This book is a series of diary entries written by a woman in her forties, most dealing with kids and aging and relationships. Even better is that the entries aren’t presented in chronological order, a conceit which creates more depth and sense of a real life than strictly arranged daily entries, one after another, would. More than anything, I loved Julavits’ voice.
  • The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor — I respond well to intelligence and an original point of view. Even better if a person has a passion for peahens.
  • Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter — This is an uncommon book. I would love to have been in the room, or in conversation with, author Max Porter as he came up with his ideas. Whoa.

***

Podcasts: If I could keep only one form of media in my life, it would be podcasts. They unearth overlooked individuals, create new methods of storytelling, and provide superior company. While I listen to quite a few different podcasts, I vigorously recommend the one that made my (and Byron’s) year. Please, if you aren’t one to take pride in the refinement of your tastes (and if you are, sit up straight; you’re slumping), consider listening to both seasons of My Dad Wrote a Porno. The title tells you what it is. No surprises. In each episode, the son reads aloud the erotic novels his father has written, and he and two delightfully witty friends react in real time. It helps that they’re British because clever. While listening to the episodes of this podcast, Byron and I both startled strangers with our guffaws. I almost broke the toes on my left foot when I dropped a 20-pound weight at the gym, due to an unexpected hoot. Broken toes would have been worth it. This podcast is everything.

For those who aren’t enthusiastic about listening to ridiculous porn as its idiocies are laid open, I would recommend Gimlet Media’s Heavyweight. In each episode, quirky host Jonathan Goldstein helps people redress moments in their personal histories that remain unresolved. In the first episode, Goldstein reconnects his 80-year-old father with his long-estranged 85-year-old uncle; in another story, Goldstein helps his half-jerk of a friend, Gregor, come to peace with the loss of a set of CDs he loaned to musician Moby a few decades ago. I quite like whimsy and difficult characters and uncomfortable moments, so this podcast is a huge find.

***

Lipsticks: He was about thirty, his beard admirably filled out. The name tag on his smock read “Nathaniel.” My credit card had gone through, he was waiting for my receipt to print, and I could tell he was fighting an impulse. Two times, he opened his mouth, only to close it through an act of will. Finally, he gave over. “Um, I don’t mean to sound weird or anything, but I want to tell you” — gesturing in a big circle around my face and torso — “what you’re doing with color is awesome. I mean, the lipstick is just great, but then there’s your coat and your purse, and it’s all so fun. I really like all the color.”

Unfortunately, workers in the drugstore aren’t allowed to accept tips. All I could do in return was thank him, tell him that I was on a blew-in-on-a-hot-wind lipstick kick, and, yes, as far as my coat and bag were concerned, I always had been a fan of saturated jewel tones and the color chartreuse.

“Well, I wasn’t sure if I should say anything because I didn’t want to be weird, but then I realized if I didn’t say anything, then how would you know?” he summarized, sliding the bag with my purchases across the counter.

My lipstick was purple that day, a bold color that catches some folks off guard, delights others, and makes me feel like I’m skipping down the sidewalk holding hands with a special friend. In recent weeks, I’ve upped my number of friends from the Liquid Suede line of lipsticks put out by Nyx cosmetics, and every day of late, my smile has stretched ear to ear as I play with bright, wild, unusual, goofy colors.

***

Television and Movies: I group these together because the best movies being made these days are television series. Certainly, I went to some movies this past year, but most of them were major franchise movies that I saw because I love my boy and (sub-plot) I love a huge, refillable vat of popcorn. So in terms of movies, I can say this:

I am enamored of Dr. Strange‘s cloak and can’t believe how epically online shopping options, including Etsy, failed me in my quest to buy a decent one for myselfIMEANMYSON, for under, ummm, $250; 

Kubo and the Two Strings was gorgeously rendered;

It took me by surprise, the way my eyes filled with tears and my heart did a slow rrrrrrrrriiiiiipppp during the last moment of Rogue One;

Oh, and although Paco didn’t watch it with me, I found a perfect kind of joy in Sing Street, for its rich callback to the ’80s, its hero whose interest didn’t come from a crisis of confidence, and its purely upbeat vibe of hope.

More frequent in my life is the watching of tv series on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. ALL HAIL THE ERA OF STREAMING. I was wowed by a lot of shows this past year — from Jessica Jones to Daredevil to Bojack Horseman to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Making a Murderer. Particular stand-outs were:

  • Catastrophe: This British comedy following a couple figuring themselves out after a surprise pregnancy makes my every hair curl in the swirl and whirl of a happy girl.
  • Fleabag: Can a show be perfection? This one was for me. Six episodes and only six episodes, adapted from an award-winning play, this show is raunchy and honest and flays the heart.
  • Chewing Gum: When a 24-year-old whose family is strongly evangelical decides it’s time to lose her virginity, that quest is worth watching. The star, Michaela Coel, is a gifted comedienne, reminding me of a couple other women with an ability to win an audience through bumbling earnestness: Lucy and Carol Burnett.
  • The Crown: Because Byron and I watch shows together, yet he gets tired at night while I do not, sometimes I look for a program that I know will appeal to me more than to him. This show’s lush, detailed, intimate depiction of England’s royal family is currently my most-delicious late-night snack.
  • Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: This show is even better than its summary promises — it’s so much more than the story of a sad woman who uproots herself from a successful career in NYC and moves to the random suburb of West Covina, California, in the hopes of winning back her teenage summer camp boyfriend. Despite that premise, the women in this show avoid most of the common tropes (Yay! They talk to each other; they are smart; they like each other — as creator Rachel Bloom explains, “I wanted to invite women in”). Even better, the show is a musical: every episode features songs that leave me snorting. For example, the song about protagonist’s big breasts made me limp. Listen to the lyrics, guys:

***

Music: There were some great albums released in 2016, some of which will remain on permanent rotation in my playlists. 

  • Beyonce’s Lemonade
  • Frank Ocean’s Blond
  • A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here . . . ; Thank You for Your Service
  • Solange’s A Seat at the Table
  • Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!

***

Thinking: Yes, yes, yes to this:

Example: if you strongly feel that the protesters at Standing Rock are noble and just in taking a stand . . . and that Native Americans’ rights have been trampled for hundreds of years . . . how can you celebrate Thanksgiving — that artfully crafted tribute to Native American and white colonialist collaboration — with truth in your heart? 

It’s okay for us to question what we do and have always done. Inspection often proves we creatures of ritual don’t make much sense. Analyzing the disconnects between what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is an excellent critical thinking exercise. It could, just could, lead to change.

Wow. That blowhardy last paragraph is a clear indication I’m revving up for another semester of teaching. Anyhow, my dudes: thinking. It’s recommended.

*** 

Shoes: I have a decades-long emotional relationship with hoof covers, but each passing year has confirmed we get what we pay for with shoes. Whereas, when I was a teen, there was nothing more exciting than a cheap pair of flats bought for $9.99 at Payless, I’ve discovered in the subsequent decades that quality is worth the price. 

In fact, let’s file that as the true lesson of this final sub-heading. Say it out loud. Internalize it. It’s a tough lesson, particularly because there are exceptions, but I would ask you all now to jot down in your journals of Jocelyn Wisdoms these words: “Quality is worth the price.” This is true with shoes, foundation garments, food, and life partners (Byron cost me a cool seven trillion).

Recently, I got a new pair of spendy shoes, thanks to two of my best friends, Virginia and Kirsten. Virginia has been writing a book about one of her former pets, Lurch — a hunchbacked, club-footed cockatiel — and she asked for my help with editing and revisions. As payment for my time, she offered me money or shoes. 

DUH. 

Shoes.

So one weekend, Kirsten took me to the Fluevog store in Minneapolis while Virginia remained in our hotel room, writing a new chapter of the book. Even weeks later, I am giddy that a new pair of clompers came home with me. There is no rational reason for the joy I get from these shoes, the same way getting excited about lipstick is frivolous and, oh yes, shallow. Trust me: I can see a frantic energy behind my devotion to fripperies; I can see it’s a way of deflecting feelings of worry and fear; I can admit a certain amount of my excitement about platform boots named Gear is actually a desperate counter-reaction to the grimness of the public landscape — dancing as fast as I can and all.

Then again.

When I stomp around in my new boots, I think of Virginia. I think of Kirsten. I think of friends and love. Hell, I put those things on, and I actually smile while doing housework.

They make me feel powerful.

They make me feel

— like I can kick 2017’s ass.


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Categories
New Year

This Wrap-Up Is the Only Thing I’m Wrapping

I didn’t wrap one single gift this season.

Relatedly: this was my favorite stretch of holiday weeks ever.

It actually started with Thanksgiving, when we curtsy-ed our way out of traditional family celebrations and, instead, invited friends from Massachusetts to visit. Were I to highlight a moment that illustrates why I loved this year’s Thanksgiving, it would be this: during the visiting family’s three-day stay, my college friend, Ellen–a woman who writes, explores podcasting, mothers, wifes, teaches yoga to kids, makes Baked Alaska, contemplates the journey of radiation after a couple of lumpectomies–plopped her earbuds into her skull and listened to voices float through her head while noodling around with the jigsaw puzzle I’d recently taken out of the box. Spotting her in there at the table, staring at the white pieces and absorbing ideas through her ears, I plugged my ears, too, and wandered in to work next to her, both of us unspeaking.

That’s all I ask from a Thanksgiving: being with friends and not talking to or looking at them.

Then, as the next step in our avoidance of holiday celebrations, we traveled to Nicaragua for Christmas. Because of this trip, we didn’t get a tree, didn’t even drag in a dead branch and hang all the crap from it, as we did last year. We didn’t “do” presents, except with family for whom the exchange matters. I’m never one for decorating, but this year, I didn’t even try to pretend that I might be someone who would set out some red balls in a bowl.

I went nowhere near the tub in the basement that contains wrapping paper, and that particular lack of action decked my damn halls from rafter to tile.

As was the case with Thanksgiving, this Christmas was my favorite ever.

We did not participate in culturally induced fuss. We did not bow to the pressures of tradition but, instead, scraped out enough space from expectation that we were allowed, simply, to feel how we felt– instead of sitting in a circle and remarking to the assembled friends or family that, yes, those new socks sure looked warm, those socks recently extracted from a wad of paper now lying under the coffee table, a wad that would lie there, next to bits of tape and ribbon, until I climbed around on all fours stuffing the detritus into a garbage bag after the room cleared, an activity I always carry out while shouting inside my head, “There’s actually a stack of books upstairs next to my bed I’d like to be reading instead of cleaning up a mound of trash.”

This year, profoundly, significantly, I wrapped NOTHING.

Here, now, however, as of this sentence, I’m all about the wrap-up. For as much as I am ornery about traditions and rituals, I must admit to enjoying year-end lists and recommendations.

If you don’t, flee now. Catch ya on the rebound, Gomer.

If you do, settle in for the following highlights from 2015:

  1. BOOZE: In 2015, I continued to find beer very tasty. In particular, I found that any product of Evil Twin Brewing–which is fairly limited in its distribution–is invariably phenomenal. There is actually the story of twins behind this brewery; their acrimony smacks of Cain and Abel, as is explained in a story in The New York Times Magazine: “A Fight Is Brewing.” All I can tell say is this: if you are one to enjoy a complex beer, and you are standing in a liquor store, hoping to find something to spark your palate, and you see the label Evil Twin, then you should clutch at your ass, pull your wallet out from your back pocket, and roll that beer up to the checkout.
  2. BOOKS: I fear I’ve never mentioned that I like books. I should fix that. Here. Now. For me, particularly satisfying reads this year came from Italian author Elena Ferrante (whom I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but she deserves repeat mentions), as I fell into her series of four “Neapolitan Novels” and then sought out one of her other books, Days of Abandonment. When I consider why I feel such enthusiasm for Ferrante, I realize it’s that she and her female protagonists are unapologetically themselves. Right now, where I am in life, I’m in the mood for hardboiled over sentimental. Another book I read this past year–well, technically over Christmas itself a year ago–and enjoyed immensely, in a way that had me actually snorting audibly, was Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Even readers not in academia will find the dry weariness of a beleaguered professor writing letters of recommendation to be hoot-worthy. A third read that sticks with me is the essay “Matricide” from Meghan Daum’s collection The Unspeakable. Daum, like Ferrante, has no energy for pussyfooting. Next, I was surprised by how much I got into the book Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. Initially, I grabbed it at the library because I needed something to read, but once I dove into this re-telling of the story of Rapunzel, I was all in. There’s something about probing the darkness behind a fairytale that caught me. And finally, partially because I stretched the reading of it throughout all of 2015 (I would only read it in the car while we drove up the hill to the shopping area of town) and partially because it’s like no other book I’ve ever read, there is Kerry Howley’s Thrown. I would not say this book is ammmmazing, nor is it a must-read for most people, but there is a certain subset of readers (hello, my college pal Tim Nielson!) who might find fascinating this tale of a philosophy graduate student who spends three years serving as a liminal “spacetaker” (aka member of the entourage) for two mixed martial arts fighters. Applying the diction and thinking of philosophy to the sweating gruntiness of cage-based athletes, Howley’s book is truly novel.
  3. CINEMA: I also love movies although I never see half enough interesting ones during these years when my best movie-viewing hours are spent on kid stuff. More and more, though, I am able to creep off for an occasional matinee at the indie theater in town. A few months back, I sat by myself in the dark and happily melted into the feminist rant that is Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin.
  4. FRIENDS: I very much like people in real life, but the powerful presence of online friends continues to enrich my days. Over this past year, I have loved many people I’ve never met; one particular standout from recent months is the writer Brooke Takhar, who blogs at missteenussr.com. For her genuine heart, positive energy, lack of agenda, empathetic support of many, and ability to serve as a sort of personal shopper for me on the Internet–so able during late-night hours to toss me links to things that I end up adoring–I want to shout a lot about Brooke.
  5. MUSIC: I’m always looking for new workout music. I have no trouble finding good grassroots groups or floaty dreams of tunes, but it’s damn hard to find a driving, rousing beat that makes my feet want to move. The aforementioned Brooke transformed my year when she tagged me on an Instagram post about the new release from mashup artist Bruneaux. Quickly, I discovered that I could download his Art of Noise, free, from SoundCloud. More recently, I’ve downloaded his previous albums, as well, so now you can spot me in the corner at the Y, cranking my feet up and down to the beats of stuff like this:
  6. ADVICE: I try to pass this on in my research writing classes especially, but in this era of web-based communications, it seems solid advice for all of us, particularly for those who channel their emotions into posting passive-aggressive memes instead of initiating direct conversations: challenge yourself to avoid the pitfalls of confirmation bias. That is, if you’ve decided something or someone is a certain way, don’t only look for evidence that supports your existing opinion. I dare you to have your brain bent because you’re willing to accept you may not be correct. Look for information that disagrees with what you want to think. Question your opinions. Let your certainty experience vulnerability. Try this one on: we all know what we think of Donald Trump. Yet he has five intelligent, successful, poised children who are unabashedly devoted to him. That doesn’t come from nowhere, and I’m unwilling to cop to the easy quip that their devotion comes from hopes of an eventual inheritance. I will never like the bloviating dipwad, but I should not only try to marshal evidence of his idiocy. His children respect him. He has done something right.
  7. PODCASTS: In 2015, podcasts continued to be one of my main sources of entertainment and information. Whenever I run or walk, I listen to the voices in my head–and not just the whispering voices that tell me I’d be a good mentor to Khloe Kardashian or guest judge on Project Runway. Like the crazy voices that always dance through my head, the deliberate ones that pipe in through my earbuds influence me. A good podcast can change my day. While I have a handful of favorites, two that emerged this year as standouts were Mystery Show and Longform. Mystery Show is hosted by Starlee Kine, she of childlike voice and wry take on the world; in each episode, she takes some workaday “mystery”  (for example, she chases down the story behind a lost belt buckle, found on the street) and wrings meaning and entertainment from it. I actually remember where I was as I listened to that belt buckle podcast: in the sure garden, kneeling amongst hosta plants, yanking weeds. During the story, there came a moment when I needed to wipe tears from my eyes, but my fingers were too dirt encrusted, so I had to rub at my eyes with my forearm. Then there is Longform, a completely different kind of program. Each week, the hosts of Longform carry out an extended interview with a different non-fiction writer. As I listen, I learn the art and stress of writing a celebrity profile, hunting down a story in a war-torn country, being embedded into a marginal subculture, cobbling together an income from freelance writing. Even better, this podcast introduces me to writers and pieces I would otherwise never encounter. One essay that came to me through this podast is Ariel Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” which ran in The New Yorker. If you have a few minutes, I recommend you click on that title. Even more, if you aren’t a podcast listener, I recommend you consider easing into this unique, intimate form of media.
  8. SENTENCE: I don’t know how it eluded me until recently, but I had never before 2015 encountered this beautiful string of words, a snippet of prose by John Updike that illustrates the craftsmanship of a true writer: “On the single strand of wire strung to bring our house electricity, grackles and starlings neatly punctuated an invisible sentence.”
  9. VISITORS: We are extremely fortunate to have friends and family visit frequently. (Sidenote: this is the year I realized, at long last, that I enjoy visitors exponentially more if we don’t give up the master bedroom to them; traditionally, we have done that, and it causes an extra layer of work and stress. Thus, when we don’t have to move out of our room, we shan’t. WHEW). The most unexpected and delightful convergence of guests occurred this summer through the whimsical chance of schedules, when we found in our house my brother and one of his daughters, the irrepressible Sofia, who flew up from Albuquerque, New Mexico; our great friend Kirsten, who lives four hours south of us in southern Minnesota and who had come to Duluth with one of her high school students and the student’s mother to help the student enroll at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (mother and daughter stayed in a hotel while Kir slept on our couch); and the ever-charming trio of friends Ileyn, aka Elaine, and her two children, Selin and Can (John), who visit the States from Istanbul each year and have worked Duluth into their itinerary these past couple of summers. During The Great Convergence, we had in our house a 51-year-old retired Air Force officer who now is a civilian military employee, a 48-year-old English teacher, a 44-year-old literacy volunteer interviewer, a 43-year-old sociology instructor who also teaches at-risk high schoolers, a 41-year-old elementary school teacher from Turkey, a 15-year-old sandwich shop dishwasher, a 14-year-old anime lover, two 12-year-old goofballs, and a 6-year-old elf. I knew the visit was magic when: I managed to Tom Sawyer a few of ’em into mowing for me, we went to the beach, weaponry was busted out, we went geocaching, and then, later, a few of ’em dyed their hair blue. Oh, yea, and ice cream!Collage
  10. TEACHING: The college where I teach has long struggled to make developmental education more effective. In previous eras, the word for “developmental” was “remedial,” and the remediation didn’t necessarily happen during college but, rather, before one even considered college. However, it’s a whole new world out there on college campuses these days, especially community colleges, and institutions of higher education are now as dedicated to bridging gaps as they are to advancing higher thinking. In my 25 years of teaching, developmental classes have been, almost uniformly, train wrecks, leaving me uncertain if it’s the students or it’s me who’s failing. After 15 or so years of teaching developmental classes, I did my best to take a break from them, as they were convincing me I didn’t belong in a classroom, and on some level, my instincts weren’t comfortable with that verdict. The truth is, though, that developmental classes aren’t a great experience for most teachers–although some instructors are certainly better wired for the student population than I am. To put a very fine point on it, I struggle to remain compassionate–despite knowing that issues of mental illness, addiction, troubled home lives, and “differently abled” brains deserve compassion–when I’m in a college classroom with students who can’t do college work. Yet. Even though many of our sections of developmental writing might start with, say, 18 students…and by midterm have, say, 12 still attending…and by final exams have, say, eight or nine still showing up, several of whom won’t pass…there is this: for those seven or so students who do pass, maybe three or four of them will continue into college-level classes, and for a couple of them, ultimately, there could be degrees and professional lives in their futures. They may end up being the first-ever college graduates in their families. They may be the first in their families not to work in the mines or in factories. They may be the best possible examples of how a college education can be transformative. They are the reason I was able to say “yes” this past year to participating in a radical overhaul of how we offer our developmental classes on our campus, mostly by turning it from a three- to a four-credit class, with two credits of reading (taught by a reading teacher) and two credits of writing (taught by a writing teacher). It makes sense to treat reading and writing as though they are interrelated, and it makes sense that we stopped basing classes on “this is a noun” and moved more into classes about “write some stuff, and then once you’ve done that, we’ll work with your ideas.” There is always a great deal of sweat the first time one teaches a new class, and so I spent a lot of hours during Fall Semester trying to come up with ideas that would suit the students’ abilities while satisfying my personal need for this pre-college class to feel as though it belonged on a college campus. A lot went well, but the assignment that stands out for me came, again, out of a tip from my pal Brooke, who had directed my attention to the longform essays on Eater.com a few months before. Midway through the semester, as I cast about for an essay that I could ask students to read, annotate, and respond to in writing, I clicked over to Eater. There, I found a piece that wouldn’t trip up pre-college-level readers–yet one containing concepts worthy of college brains: “What It Really Means to Eat a Big Mac at the Arctic Circle.” After students worked through this essay, I had them write journal entries, telling their own story of an emotional connection or special memory they have with a fast food restaurant. Later, sitting in my office, reading those journals, I had a huge, important, affirming moment: the assignment I’d given in a developmental class had yielded fantastic results. I was not used to that feeling. It fed me, made me want to keep trying, gave me hope. Their stories of going to the drive-thru with grandparents, sharing a shake with Dad after his night shift, slinging deli meat across the table at a best friend, getting a chocolate dip cone while listening to mothers laugh–all their rich responses made me think maybe this developmental thing could work after all.
  11. BLOG: You’ll never guess who turned me on to my new favorite blog this year, but if you guess Brooke then yes, you can guess who turned me on to my new favorite blog this year. When she first shared a link from Samantha Irby’s bitchesgottaeat, I sat in front of the screen, dumbfounded. What was Irby doing? No capital letters? Creating her own rhythms and therefore her own voice? Working in beats and punchlines that made me go back six words and read again, just so I could realize what had just happened? Irby’s writing is, to me, hillllarious, and I adore that her prose requires the reader to shift his/her brain. I have enjoyed each post on bitchesgottaeat so very much that I hoped one day to be able to repay Brooke’s tip by turning her onto a good read, as payback. Fortunately, one night another wonderful blogger, Leigh Ann (she writes at genieinablog.com) shared a piece written by a friend of hers, Heidi Meurer, and I knew this woman’s writing was something Brooke would appreciate as much as I. If you want to become jealous at how funny someone can be in very few words–you know, sort of the anti-Jocelyn–try reading the letters/posts at Your Dear Mama.
  12. TV SHOW: In this age of streaming, television is the new cinema. It’s actually frustrating that there aren’t enough hours to binge on all the tv shows I want to watch. Jessica Jones, Mr. Robot, Narcos–we’ll get to you eventually, I promise. One show we did get to, and it’s a show that satisfied me in every possible way–actually doing what romantic comedy should do, which is to present appealing people making a relationship seem like something worth exploring–is a British series called Catastrophe, streaming in the States exclusively through Amazon and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney. I like my heart to be warmed, but I detest treacle. So far, we’ve only seen the first season–COME ON, AMAZON, AND MAKE SEASON TWO AVAILABLE BEFORE I BURST–and its six episodes felt like perfection.
  13. MOMENT OF RESTRAINT: Sometimes I start yappin’, and the sound of my voice makes even me tired. As someone who loves to monologue, I often find motherhood a strain because it’s a role in which it particularly feels like I’m supposed to hold forth and pay no attention to my kids’ panicked eyes as I wax on, ad infinitum, about love and choices and confidence and friends. In my best moments, I see an opportunity to hold forth and create panicked eyes, yet I let it pass. Recently, I did just this, and I remain proud of my willpower. This happened: during our time in Nicaragua, Allegra and I were bodysurfing in some high-tide Pacific waves, enjoying the rhythm of the water pushing us around. Then, out of nowhere, a massive wave came along, and before we realized its power, the thing had picked us up, slapped a headache into the back of our skulls, bashed us into the grit seven feet below the surface, and dragged us along the bottom before coughing us onto the shore. In the seconds that the wave held our bodies, scraping our knees and the tops of our feet raw, filling our swimsuits and orifices with sand, making us gasp and push back against fear, we had absolutely no control. The wave owned us, and it was a crystalline example of Nature at the helm. When the wave receded, as we took a few minutes to recover before deciding we were done for the day, I wanted to start talking. I wanted to launch into an extended metaphor about that wave being like childbirth–a time of no control, hurting profoundly, struggling to touch the bottom, moaning for it to stop, and being awash with the agony of knowing all that’s possible is hanging in there until it’s over. Friends, I looked at the sopping, breathless 15-year-old next to me, and I kept my mouth shut. My silence was a significant breakthrough.
  14. LACK OF RESTRAINT: I will always love shoes beyond reason. A hundred pairs would not feel like too many. If I go away for five days, packing seven pairs seems about right. In fact, one of the most promising parts of 2016 is that it’s 365 more days in which shoes might potentially enter my life. Even better: maybe 365 pairs will drop from the sky–in a variety of sizes and styles–and then I can inventory them, carry out a survey, and send a pair to each and every one of you. Despite my dislike of paper and tape, I’ll even wrap them. Because–
  15. BLOG READERS: You there, yea YOU, are my utter favorite. Don’t tell the others. I like you so much I’d wrap a pair of shoes for you, and I think we all know that from a Grinch like me, there is no louder declaration of affection. Out of all the many greatnesses of 2015, you’ve been one of the highest of the lights. Thanks, chums, for clapping your eyes on my typing. GROUP HUG ALREADY.
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New Year

Taking Stock

As one year ends, and a new one begins, it is tradition to slow down for a moment to take stock.

Although I generally chafe at tradition, and although I tend to exhaust myself by taking stock every day of every year, I do like the notion of recording some of my favorite things from the past clump of days. Then, when my memory fails, I can come back and read this blog as though someone else wrote it, and it’ll be so fun to get to know the lady who wrote this stuff! I’ll be a new friend for my own addled brain!

A quick sampling of some of 2013’s delights, then:

1) Beer. I can never thank beer enough for all it’s done for me, and in this era of craft brews, whole new worlds are opening. I view the hoptimization of our country with great hoptimism.

2) Friends. I mean, there are friends, and there are friends. We have a good sampling of types, but there are a few specific pals who happify me with their ability to be playful, thoughtful, analytical. For me, the best friends will leap onto the sled that is life and take a wild ride down the hill (Hey, Addled Jocelyn, have you noticed how the lady writing this blog enjoys not only wordplay but also clunky metaphors? Just like you used to?).

I cannot tell you how much this picture, taken at the weekly summer "Wednesday Night at the Races," makes me laugh. Three-year-old Aliya has a proper match in her Mama Julie there.
I cannot tell you how much this picture, taken at the weekly summer “Wednesday Night at the Races,” makes me laugh. Three-year-old Aliya has a proper match in her Mama Julie there.

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3) Reading. This is not news, of course, but somehow I feel like reading in 2013 was particularly good; perhaps I was just in the mood to be entertained that way, or perhaps I happened upon a very good string of books, but, holy crikey, did I enjoy reading this past year. In particular, I liked feeling challenged by books without having to find them challenging, if that makes any sense. Books like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries play around with structure and the limits of storytelling in ways that pushed me to pay attention and commit. Also, my friend Tim sent me a book that, at first, I thought was simply a joke, but once I started reading it, the thing was balm to all the stresses of every day. I’m not quite sure how she did it, but when Agnes Sligh Turnbull wrote Gown of Glory (penned in 1952 but set in 1881), she wrote a tale of faith and goodness that is much better than it has a right to be. I’m not a religious person–unless you count crying at the beauty of snow on a pine tree a kind of worship–but I was very taken by the story of a family completely living within the mores of the era while, at the same time, wrangling with the issues in their lives in a way that is surprisingly authentic. After finishing Gown of Glory, I went online and ordered two more of Turnbull’s books, hoping for similarly satisfying reads.

4) Boots. Familycousins, specifically, in these photos. Doesn’t hurt to have a thirteen-year-old with a heap of forbearance, either.

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5) This city. Duluth’s charms are many, from its lake to its greenspaces to its burgeoning culture of breweries. I adore that we’re currently experiencing a true winter (although you know it’s been damn cold for a damn long time when unflappable Byron announces, mournfully, “I need it to be, like, 20. Can’t it just be 20 outside?” That would entail a 40 degree spike from the current temperature, however, so it might actually be too much to ask).

Nevertheless, the North Shore of Minnesota is swell.

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Ghosts on the surface of the lake are caused by the water temperature being so much warmer than the air and by the unsettled souls of dead people.
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Shadowing Byron in the kayak as he swims in Lake Superior.

6) Equal rights for all loving couples, per the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states, including Minnesota. We had a summer full of celebration, as several beloved couples in our lives were able to make it official. As it turns out, I don’t only cry at snow on a pine tree.

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7) The ability to give myself an inner chuckle. Last week, speaking of Addled Jocelyn, I couldn’t come up with the word that would follow “Mongolian…” or “marauding…” Instead of landing on “hordes,” my brain filled in “hoarders,” which then let me go off on a riff about yurts stacked to the ceiling with inflated goat bladders.

Then, today in yoga class, I had a little inward grin when the teacher kept telling us, as we lay on our stomachs, to rest our foreheads on the floor. Given the genetics of my proboscis, there’s no way my forehead will ever touch the floor unless I launch myself into an inclined headstand.

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Making my own fun

8) Music. So long as I can crank Kansas’ “Carry on My Wayward Son” or Bob Mould singing about the Hoover Dam, there will be a sashay in my hootenanny.

9) Always, the three people I live with. I actually dodge many opportunities to socialize, simply because I am so fully satisfied by just these three. They are soft, wry, creative, capable, goofy. And they never flinch, no matter what kind of nonsense I spout. They are my sweetest and my best.

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New Year

A Night Like Any Other

In 2000, when our first child was born, my dad bought us a video camera to aid in documenting the special moments.

Although YouTube and America’s Funniest Home Videos intimate otherwise, video cameras are rarely present during the truly special moments.

It was extremely lovely, however, to be able to point that big, clunky camera at our newborns, toddlers, preschoolers in their early years. Later, it was equally fun to capture the kids’ growth and development on a smaller, digital video camera. After I managed to leave that fine investment behind some couch cushions at a pension in Turkey, we replaced it with a cheaper video camera–one that does the job, but not with much finesse. Something about the lower quality coupled with the kids getting older has made us forget to record, has made us neglect the visual documentation that we tracked so faithfully back in the years when the kids were less complex. Thus, we really don’t have many videos of them, outside of their school concerts, during these elementary and middle school years.

In an effort to counteract that negligence, I recently have tried to place our cheapo camera in high traffic areas, in the hopes that I will occasionally remember to grab it and turn it on. Not so interested in “framing a story” or “catching a special moment,” I just want to capture the sounds of the kids’ voices at these ages, to chronicle how they move at this stage of life, to give them something to look back at, should they care to see themselves objectively at some point in the future.

A few weeks ago, as Paco was practicing his saxophone, I spotted the camera nearby and thought, “Hey, I want to remember what it sounded like when we had a novice saxophonist in the house.” Since Paco does not like to be the object of a camera’s attention, I didn’t go stand in the same room with him. Rather, I turned on the camera while in another room and just kept the flow of everything else going. Because I couldn’t see Paco from where I was sitting, I handed the camera to Byron, who was able to train the eye on the boy.

We recorded for not much more than a minute, and I quickly forgot about it. As I downloaded the kids’ holiday concerts last week, though, I also downloaded that saxophone snippet. When I clicked Play, to remind myself what the video even pertained to, I was entranced. There, without any planning or artifice, was a moment in time that typifies Our Current Everything. I was quizzing Allegra on her Spanish; Paco was practicing; we all were hanging out before dinnertime. One minute on the video camera, and it feels like a cross-section of our entire year.

2012 was a time of particular grace for this family. We did not lose anyone dear. We were preternaturally healthy. We had time and travel and community and dashes through the sprinklers. We started Morning Glories from seed. We ran races and learned guitar. We left the library with more than we could carry; we dipped strawberries in chocolate. We choreographed tricks on the trampoline. We played cards, attended conferences, shot fireworks, drank beer, carved pumpkins. We jumped in lakes, lost at tug-of-war, played Bananagrams, graded papers, listened to secrets. We braided hair. We built robots, took ink to paper, tobogganed at the golf course. We rode trains, planes, boats, and Ferris Wheels. We availed ourselves of free refills on large tubs of popcorn and taught others to feed themselves. We threw an arm around a waist and walked hip to hip.

We were providentially free of crisis and pain.

Quite blessedly, we were able to idle around the wooden spoons and mark the music,

living those flashes of Nothing Much that add up to the beauty of Everything That Is.

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gratitude McNuggets New Year NPR Oprah pork

W.W.O.D.?

 

If there is a circle of life, that circle just might be the “O” at the start of “Oprah.”

It all starts and ends with Her Royal TalkNess, dunn’t it?

If we need a book to read, she tells us what to buy, and invariably we’ll find ourselves gratified to have paged through yet another tale of an abused foster child in the American South.

If we need shoes to ogle, she marches out in a pair of brown suede Louboutin ankle boots, rousing all viewers to a fevered pitch.

If we find ourselves feeling politically undecided or veering towards independence, Ms. Winfrey-If-You’re-Nasty tells us for whom to cast our vote.

If we need to buy Christmas gifts, she details a list of several thousand dollars worth of her Favorite Things, never minding that we can hardly afford to buy Panini Presses for twenty-four of our closest friends, much less fit such a thing into a stocking.

And if we find ourselves spiritually hollow, she recommends we keep “gratitude journals,” catalogues of our internal thank you’s which spur on greater appreciation and, subsequently, result in renewal and abundance.

Feh.

Frankly? I’m not sure how challenging a gratitude journal is when you sleep on 700-thread count Egyptian Cotton sheets, own six homes, and have a personal chef flavoring your gnocchi with truffle oil. And personally, I feel the time I would spend on a gratitude journal is better spent clinking the spoon into my nearly-empty ice cream bowl, as I–deliberately and gratefully–swipe out every last remnant of the Moose Tracks.

Plus, I can hardly make it through a day without at least a two-minute weeping break simply for the wonderment of it all: my robust health, my children’s intelligence and beauty, my husband’s steadfast adoration, my dynamic job, my gracious house, the stack of books on my nightstand, the readers of this blog, the chance to see Juno, the espresso maker, the fleece socks, the gentle curve in the handle of my toothbrush.

Every day is full. Every day is amazing. I don’t get over that.

So I don’t keep a journal of my thank you’s, as a rule. However, since the new year has just launched, it does seem a fair moment to take stock of the bounty that plumps up my life and waistline.

Of course, I am also bountiful in years, and since I’ve hit forty, the memory ain’t what she used to…

Crap. I trailed off there. What was I saying?

Something about losing the power of memory. I can’t recall the rest.

At any rate, since my memory would be hard-pressed to cover the entire year in review, I’ll limit myself to Recent Days of Gratitude:

1) Saturday: Thank you, Little Pork Pies. When Groom rolled out that pie crust and brought the muffin tins up from the basement, I knew it was still the giving season. Of course, I’m almost better at receiving than giving, so thanks for the receipt of those warm, crusty, flaky pies stuffed full of pork and onions and sloughed-off skin cells. Every bit of it was yum.

2) Sunday: Thank you, Zamboni, for being the perfect distraction. Most wondrous of machines (save the hot air balloon, if we can count that as a machine), you were there at the hockey rink in Lester Park at just the right time, re-surfacing the ice as Girl and I, tired from an hour-and-a-half ski around a groomed loop, hit that last long, steep hill. Knowing we’d break limbs if we attempted the descent, our pretended interest in you, Zamboni, gave us cause to take off our skis and let them slide down the hill, unpersoned, as we chased after them. You kept up your work as we retrieved our rogue skis from the bushes, chere Zamboni, so we could point at you and marvel at your prowess instead of considering that we might be spineless wimps, too cowardly to hurl our bodies into the open, white softness, preferring instead to hoof it down Everest there.

By the way, Zambon-er, through the twirling of your brushes, did you get a look at that Girl of mine? Did you see her chugging along all that time, over hill and dale, before she de-ski-ified? Could you believe she’s only seven and just kept going and going, so good-naturedly? If you are ever fortunate enough to spit a little Zamboodlie out your junk, Ms. Zamboni, you’d count yourself doubly lucky to have one like my Girl.

3) Monday: Thank you, Chicken McNuggets, for providing the leverage to get my kids to agree to play in the YMCA’s “Kids’ Club.” They have been burned there before by a scary babysitter lady named Judy (as Girl described her a couple of years ago, “Even when a kid hasn’t done anything wrong, she talks at them like they have”), making them reluctant to hang out in this “club” so that their mama can get in a workout on the days when Pappy is at work (good thing he’s a lazy slouch, and that’s a rarity in our lives). But as soon as I slip the words “Happy” and “Meal” and “McNuggets” and “new Bionicle toy” out of my mouth, along with the caveat that these things find life only in the Kids’ Club, the deal is struck; the deed is done; the fries are ketchupped; the mother is sweaty and giddy with endorphins.

4) Tuesday: Thank you, NPR, for talking in my ear whenever I run or ski or cook. Sure, as happened today, you freaked out some onlookers who passed me on the Superior Hiking Trail. They couldn’t figure out why the redhead running on snowshoes was sobbing as she puffed along. It didn’t look that painful, after all, and she seemed to have a choice about what she was doing. So why the tears?

Because your stories move me, NPR. When you pour into my ears audio essays about people’s lives–as a man weakens from cancer and passes away in a hospital bed placed in the living room; as a father of a child with mental delays notes, “My son has so much to give, but unfortunately there are very few takers”; as a transgendered individual explains why a life on the streets as a “working girl” is the best she can expect for happiness–I am reminded of my copious luck. These vignettes, peppered with the sublime counterpoint of Pavarotti’s soaring tenor, keep my cheeks frozen with tears of salutation.
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So you see, Ofrey Winprah Steadwoman, my hours are breathing entries in an unwritten journal of gratitude. You can tell me what bra to buy, how to network with angels, and how to lose weight by dragging the fat out onto a stage in a Little Red Wagon, but the truth is that you can’t tell me how to live my best life. I’m on my own with that one.

Providentially, 2007 offered up 362.5 days of grace and acclamation and awe.

The other 2.5 days sucked fudge crackers, of course.

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