Seven Days

Day 1

In the space of 17 hours, my brain is packed with thoughts of race, discrimination, and the ambling drift of change. First, I hear the story behind a song Billie Holiday made famous,”Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of almost-three young black boys in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. After white citizens broke into the jail (the boys had been accused of murdering a white man and raping his girlfriend), two were hung immediately, but as the third boy, a 16-year-old named James Cameron, was being dragged to the tree to be killed, he pleaded for mercy — at which point someone in the crowd jumped onto the hood of a car and yelled, “He’s innocent; he didn’t do it.” The jarring sound of that voice saved Cameron’s life. He ended up serving four years as an accessory to murder even though the details of that event were never clear, ultimately being pardoned in 1993 by the governor of Indiana. Cameron died in 2006 at the age of 92, survived by a wife, three children, and a crew of grandchildren.

Some hours later, grading end-of-semester research papers, I read a student’s essay about the evolution of black women’s hairstyles — away from “trying to be white” relaxed looks into, nowadays, styles that actually work with hair that grows out instead of down; the essay is entitled “I Am Not My Hair,” and it is a firm, moving exploration of how significant the issue of hair is when it comes to acceptance of self and culture. From this paper, I learn about Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Jessica Sims, a woman who wore her hair in tightly twisted locks pulled into a bun when she was in uniform. After nine years of wearing this style while in the military, she was told in 2014 to cut her hair or wear a wig. When she refused, her commanders processed her for separation for “serious misconduct.” It was in 2014 that the military adopted language that was later deemed “racially biased.” Between the passage of that language — which included prohibiting styles that were “unkempt and matted” (forbidding twists, dreadlocks and multiple braids/cornrows that were bigger than a quarter of an inch) — and its eventual retraction and revision some months later, an example was made of Sims. Her military career came to an end, and now the military countenances the hairstyle she was discharged for wearing.

An hour after grading that paper, I listen to the story of a Richmond, California, program that takes a revolutionary approach to street violence: once a year, the Office of Neighborhood Safety combs through both police records and on-the-ground observations and compiles the names of the 50 individuals in the city who are most likely to be shot or shoot someone. Almost invariably, the individuals who are flagged are African-American. Leaders of this program then approach those high-risk individuals and offer them an opportunity to re-direct their lives, if they agree to some terms. Essentially, the criminals attend meetings and receive a pay check for going straight. At the meetings, they are treated with respect, counseled about better options, and provided with strategies for avoiding the pitfalls of street life. They also receive anywhere from $300-$1,000 per month, depending on how successful they are at reaching their stated goals and following a “life map.” Absolutely, this program, aimed at interrupting the trajectory of birth>hardening>crime>prison/death, is controversial. Its framework is hyper-liberal. For me, I am willing to absorb the numbers, as reported in a Mother Jones article: “65 of the 68 ‘fellows’ enrolled in the program in the previous 47 months were still alive. One had survived a shooting and three had died. In 2007, when [the] program began, Richmond was America’s ninth most dangerous city, with 47 killings among its 106,000 residents. In 2013, it saw its lowest number of homicides in 33 years, and its homicide rate fell to 15 per 100,000.” Perhaps even more compelling is this summary from someone drafted into the program: “‘It’s just words, sometimes,’ says Eric Welch, a 25-year-old ONS fellow who was shot twice — the first time when he was 15 — before joining the program. ‘To me it ain’t nothing that I ain’t never heard before.’ But ONS kept after him, and eventually Welch realized the danger was real. ‘It was just like, “Okay, [they’re] saying this for a reason.”‘”**

Day 2

The second my foot hits the parking lot, a roll of thunder spreads across the clouds. It’s the hottest day of the year — with our neck of Northern Minnesota being the warmest spot in the nation — and I have spent most of it inside, grading research papers. Finally, late afternoon, I am ready to get sweaty on some nearby trails. But then the thunder. The torrential rain. Settling back into the car, I sit for 20 minutes, reading articles online, checking Facebook, texting Byron. He reports the storms will last a couple of hours. Giving up, I head to the nearby grocery store to pick up a few items. My favorite part of shopping is the unexpected buy: this time some Hawaiian Punch taffy. As I check out, the boy bagging my groceries stops, nearly says, “What ho?!” as he picks up the colorful plastic bag. “Wow. This looks so good. This would totally be an impulse buy for me,” he says. Yes, I assure him. Hawaiian Punch taffy had not been on my shopping list when I entered the store.

Day 3

Because an online student has taken a notion to yell at me about the grade she received on her final paper, I am not feeling social; despite this, I slap on some lipstick and earrings, and Byron and I head to a bread-and-cheese party. Our city is abustle with the Homegrown Music Festival, wherein musical groups perform in every restaurant, bar, and open space to be found. As a rule, we avoid this. But the party, this year, right now, today, we do not avoid. We love the hosts and have a hankering to see their cool, recently renovated downtown loft. As Frank, one of the hosts, gives us a tour, he starts with their shared office — a commodious, high-ceilinged space with eclectic art hung all over the walls. The room has a run-down, bohemian air; that slightly decayed vibe is seductive. Delightfully, long windows provide not only glorious natural light but also an endlessly fascinating view of the alley behind the building, a byway that is a beautiful crapshoot of a vista; one can expect to see a police car, a heroin addict, a runner, a skateboarder, or a lost college student wandering down the road between the buildings, skirting the eye-magnet of a metal door covered with graffiti that acts as a focal point for the officer worker. Byron and I have long played around with the idea of retiring to an urban loft, and this tour props that dream onto some beefy legs. Plus: I am moony about the idea of a shared office, wherein we each could have our own ten feet of desk backed by couches, surrounded by framed images and reminders of the world outside. By the end of the tour, I want to clasp my hands over my heart. Packing inspiration from the loft tour into a tissue-lined box labeled “Maybe Future,” I walk outside to where the eats are staged and pull a bottle of white wine out of a cooler filled with ice.

Graffitti Door

Day 4

Paco, Byron, and I drop Allegra at work and take ourselves to see the latest film in the Marvel franchise, Captain America: Civil War. I’ve had a couple nights of ragged sleep, so my mood is uneven. Two hours earlier, when I’d humped down the stairs craving a massive cup of coffee, my head hurt, my shoulder ached, and I spent some crabby time in front of the pantry door, snaking my right hand up the wood, trying to ease some of the stiffness and yap that had made sleep a touchy place. It was only when Byron announced, “I’m just really into Prom right now and want to talk about dresses” that I felt the first glimmer of hope the day might shape up.

Later, in the movie theater, my spirits perk even further when a 14-year-old girl, as fully 14 as she can be, plops down two seats away from me. I’m sitting in the dark, watching the trailers and trying to raise my right hand to the back of my head, further attempting to release some of the ache. As the 14-year-old settles in, though, all thoughts of shoulder and fatigue evaporate. For the next 2.5 hours, I watch both Avengers and seat neighbor with equal amusement. Sure, the teenage Spiderman provides lively enthusiasm, but he pales in comparison to the spectacle of the girl to my right. Removing her flip-flops, tugging down her mini-skirt, she treats several seats as a chaise longue — her feet on the seat next to me, her hip on the elevated flip-seat, her head on the armrest. Fully horizontal, more relaxed than if she’d been reclining in a warm tub of bubbles, she reaches periodically into a bag of candy, the crackle of wrappers louder than even the huge speakers in the Ultra-Screen stadium theater. Every 15 minutes or so, she abandons her recline, unfurls in a sort of  Twyla Tharp-inspired interpretive seat dance, turns my direction, and spends 30 seconds staring intently at my profile, not actually seeing me for me but, rather, assessing her audience. Then, satisfied I’m not going to steal her Starburst or jam my hand up her skirt, she melts back into the seats. Bare feet next to me. Hips on polyester seat cover. Head on armrest. She isn’t a fan of the Scarlet Witch or Iron Man. But she clearly is a huge fan of herself, this girl, and in a 14-year-old that qualifies as a superpower.

Day 5

A week ago, I returned to using My Fitness Pal to record every bite that enters my mouth. Six weeks of immobilization — even though I went for daily walks — has puffed me up right good. Every day last week, I weighed, measured, and logged my food; every day except one, I netted roughly 1500 calories of intake, once exercise was figured in (that is, I exercise so I can eat more — PLUS WINE). Every day, I ran 90-100 minutes and, later in the day, walked 30-45 minutes. Now, a week in to netting 1500 calories a day, thanks to doing 2-2.5 hours of cardio, I have lost A POUND. Yes, that is good. Still. A POUND. Is it any wonder I seethe when I read that pat advice to “Eat less; move more”? I eat five ounces of high-protein yogurt with three medium strawberries sliced into it for lunch each day, so you sure as hell can believe I would cackle evilly if I could do a Freaky Friday body swap with such holier-than-thou types. Yea, okay, Mr. “Eat Less; Move More,” take control of my corporeal shell for a month, and let’s see what you can do with this mess. I’m pretty sure our end-of-month debriefing will see you shamefacedly trotting out the words “genetics” and “metabolism” while begging for a return to your old body. Also: I can assure you that your old body has never had more fun than during these weeks when I took over. It doesn’t necessarily want you back, you unctuous know-it-all.

Day 6

I am starting to think I need a Lemonade intervention. I cannot stop listening to Beyonce’s angry, assertive album, can’t stop watching the movie — so many beautiful, rage-filled, muscular scenes. And the clothes. And the hair — what Beyonce is doing with her black woman’s hair in that movie is significant. Lemonade is the soundtrack to my end-of-semester grading. Juxtaposing a light trip down the scale with pissed-off sentiment, she sings “middle fingers up” as I open student documents. Today, I am grading final exams from the Modern World Literature class. They’ve had a week to work on take-home answers, not so much short-answer essay questions as long-answer essay questions. It is not unusual to receive 8, 10, 12, pages from a single student, especially from the smart, motivated crop of students I was lucky enough to score this semester. Also, it is noteworthy that at least 1/3 of the class uses the word “colored” when describing a black character in one of the stories; that is the word used within the story — which is set 60 years ago in South Africa — and many students internalize it as proper usage, peppering it throughout their responses. There is no end to teachable moments.

The final question on the exam is a softball, but it yields enthusiastic, important responses. In that final question, I ask students to reflect on the stories we read over 16 weeks and identify specific bits of cultural knowledge they gained from the readings. Basically, I’m asking them to identify and articulate what they have learned. In this era when liberal arts classes, literature courses in particular, are under attack for being irrelevant (“I’m going to be an auto technician/phlebotomist/web designer. This class is a waste of my time”), the responses to this final question assure me that there are few things more essential to the education of a fully rounded human being than the reading of literature.

Here are a few topics students identify as “new to me, thanks to this class”: the existence of detention camps; the tradition of foot binding in China; that Jewish people feel alienated during the Christmas season; that the U.S. is actually fairly progressive on GLBT rights compared to other nations; that women around the world lack equal rights; that there was a thing called Apartheid. One student writes, “I had no idea how difficult the Depression was for Americans.” Another student, referring to a story in which a teenage girl in India dares to smoke a cigarette in public, arrives at a profound personal revelation: “Reputation doesn’t define who I am, and I don’t have to please everyone.”

I have learned about many aspects to different cultures and how they affect an individual personally. This has not only opened my mind to the many practices and rituals of others, but also the struggles that they face. I believe that in understanding others, we must first learn about them. We cannot simply feel pain or understand their practice by simply looking at them, we have to learn how we relate as humans. Growing up in a small town, unaware of other cultures, races and views, I benefited greatly from these readings. I actually felt as if I was craving the chance to learn about these varying cultures, and seek a greater view. I find myself trying to educate others to see views from the other end, and finding compassion within ourselves to accept differing ways. This has not only profited my life right now, but I believe that it will further grow into understanding others, and wanting to learn about other cultures. In sum, this class not only furthered my knowledge about other cultures, but fueled my desire to learn even more. Sarah

I am grading. Beyonce’s voice taunts “boy, bye” while a voice inside my head pounds, “I want every auto technician to know about Apartheid. I want all the phlebotomists to know that foot binding perverted opportunity for thousands, millions, of women. I want every web designer to live in awareness of detention camps.”

Day 7

I grab my coffee and head to the living room. Eyeing the carpet, admiring the accumulation of lint and crumbs, I plop to the floor. It’s physical therapy time. Already, I’ve done my wax-on/wax-off exercises on the wall, pushing a folded towel in small circles both clock- and counterclockwise. Already, I’ve walked my fingers up the pantry door in the kitchen, trying to reach for the ceiling without letting my scapula do the work. Now it’s dowel time, hands-behind-the-head time, internal rotation time — and, as of the past few days, strengthening time. At my PT session earlier in the week, I was given the challenge of lifting a one-pound weight. Since I don’t have a one-pound weight at home, I lie on the living room floor, raising and lowering a can of corn, arcing it from my hips to a point above my face, above my head. It seems entirely probable that I might drop the can and break my glasses and nose.

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Inhaling, exhaling, arcing, I let my brain wander. A chuckle escapes my lips, which is better than pursing them tightly — the tendency when my shaking arm works the corn. The involuntary snort comes as I recall last night’s 2 a.m. reading. Thanks to a recommendation from my friend Tim, I have been reading the collected letters of Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being. Long a fan of O’Connor’s stories, I relish this chance to experience her non-authorial voice. She is so flipping funny. Every night, I laugh and laugh. She is wry, dead-on hilarious in her descriptions of the various farm families cycling through the land she and her mother live on outside Midgeville, Georgia, charmingly self-deprecating, appealingly confident about her talent. The letters range from the late 1940s to the early 1960s and reveal O’Connor’s stoicism about living with lupus and spending years on crutches. Admitting she primarily spends her hours reading and writing (when not tending to the peahens she raises), she notes the loss of physical ability has minimal impact on her days. If I break my nose with a can of corn, you can bet I’ll not be the slightest bit O’Connorish about it.

Moving my arm through the air, shaking, I snicker as I remember this passage: “…I have just sold the television rights to ‘The Life You Save May Not Be Your Own’ to what I understand is called the General Electric Playhouse. All I know about television is hearsay but somebody told me that this was a production conducted by Ronald Regan (?) [sic]. I don’t know if this means RR will be Mr. Shiftlet or not. A staggering thought. Mr. Shiftlet and the idiot daughter will no doubt go off in a Chrysler and live happily ever after. Anyway, on account of this, I am buying my mother a new refrigerator. While they make hash out of my story, she and me will make ice in the new refrigerator.”

Later, O’Connor writes to another friend: “…I have bought us a new refrigerator — the kind that spits the ice cubes at you, the trays shoot out and hit you in the stomach, and if you step on a certain button, the whole thing glides from the wall and knocks you down…”

Chuckling again at thoughts of a 1950s refrigerator entering a kitchen in rural Georgia, I let the can of corn rest on my hip.

That was 12 reps.

I’m done.


**The “Strange Fruit” and Richmond, California, stories came to me via the Radio Diaries podcast, a most excellent program

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The Creek Elves

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He doesn’t care that I’m running past him, earbuds in. From his three-foot height, perspective is a tricky thing.

Intending to slide by, I smile at the little boy.

As soon as his eyes meet mine, though, words fly through the gap in his top front teeth. A big boy at age six, he shouts: “I brwaught my sister to the creek to show her the creek, and we rode our bikes!”

Slowing to a molasses trot, I smile again — my heart genuinely feels the smile at the same time my public face, knowing it must be kind to children, makes the right move. “Hey, cool,” I reply, grinning towards his younger sister, all of four, who, gasping with excitement at the sight of her brother talking to a tall person, hikes her charming flowered sundress and holds up a single muddy hand, showing the tall person that she’s been busy.

“I this dirt water brudder.” Her lips move, the voice reaching me faintly over the podcast that pours into my ears.

Still, a four-year-old is waving her hand at me, so I wave back, slowing my movement to two inches per second. Part of my brain thinks, “Should I worry that a six and a four-year-old are by themselves at a creek?” while the other part reassures “Those noggins are still strapped into bike helmets that some bigger person helped clasp.”

As if he reads my fleeting consternation, the big brother in charge continues his information dump. Pointing, straight-armed, up the gravel road, he yells, “We live on Idlewild, and we came over there from Idlewild on our bikes, and there are two ways you can get to our house from here.”

My bladder is full; I consider asking him for specifics about main-floor plumbing.

“Two ways, huh?” I ask, still shuffling my feet, trying to convey that the runner lady has places to go. Yet, gad, an enthusiastic gap-toother is about to provide me with a map to the place where his Legos live. I surely do love Legos.

And I surely do love teaching kids lessons about not talking to strangers, which is exactly what they’ll learn when all their Legos disappear.

I pull an earbud out. All the better to hear him with.

“YETH, THERE ARE TWO WAYS TO GET TO OUR HOUSE ON IDLEWILD FROM HERE,” the creek host hollers. “YOU CAN GO UP THAT ROAD, OR YOU CAN…”

His arm remains outstretched, but he stops. This is hard. Two ways is hard.

“Okay, first you can either go up that road. Or you can –…” An invisible hand reaches up and scratches his head.

I am compelled to help Short Stuff out. “Can you maybe also get to Idlewild if you go on that road, right there?” I ask, pointing at the nearest street.

Attempting to win through volume, the brother corrects me. “NO. NOT THAT WAY. BUT THERE ARE TWO WAYS. ONE IS THAT ROAD. AND THE OTHER IS–…”

He stands, frozen. Yet the energy of adventure fuels him. “THERE ARE ACTUALLY THREE WAYS. IS WHAT I MEANT TO SAY. THERE ARE THREE WAYS. FIRST, YOU CAN GO ON THAT ROAD. AND THEN YOU CAN–… BUT THEN THERE’S A THIRD WAY, TOO, IF YOU GO OVER…”

In this election season, I am familiar with his impulse to cover confusion and ignorance with a flood of words. His parents, no doubt sipping vodka gimlets in deck chairs somewhere on Idlewild while their kids riddle their way home, must be CNN junkies.

The kid is flummoxed, but he persists, saying words about the third way. Street. Bikes. Go. Up. No. Down.

Behind him, his little sister twirls, admiring the flare of her skirt.

I love these kids. But a thin trickle of urine threatens my spandex. Inhaling deeply, I reach for closure. “So there are three ways home? You seem really sure of the first one, so when you head home, that would be the best one to take, right? When you have a couple of choices, but you’re unsure, it’s best to–”

The four-year-old interrupts me with a bellow learned from a gap-toothed master. “HE SAID THERE ARE THREE WAYS. THREE IS NOT A ‘COUPLE.’ TWO IS A ‘COUPLE.'”

These kids are going to be just fine.

Shrugging with defeat, I wave goodbye and turn towards home.

Wherever it is.

There are probably fifteen ways I could get there.

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Be Your Own Badass

I fear I am a one-note writer.

So many of my essays are expressions of gratitude — although sometimes I bury it deeply enough that readers simply think the piece was about eating pie (blueberry up my nose) or getting new shoes (don’t touch: MINE) or loving my kids (Have you met them? They will gaze silently, listen intently, disappear into a book, and two weeks later drop a devastatingly astute observation that reveals they got it.).

Often, I write from gratitude because it’s safe. No one will object to positivity and affirmation. No one will tell me I’m wrong or out of line or inappropriate if the point of a story is a happy glow capped by a heartfelt swoop and a wave of peace fingers.

When I skid into areas that are raw, challenging, anti-gratitudinal, people get uncomfortable. It’s the rare reader who seeks distress. Most folks object to a perspective that grates. So there is an erosion that happens: the writer edits her ideas before she ever edits the punctuation.

I write safe.

It chafes.

It’s okay if I point out my own foibles and tell stories in which I’m the dunce. However, the second others enter the narrative, they have rights, too. An uneasy tension between I’m telling my story and I’m telling their story crops up. From there, it gets murky and complicated. I’m just trying to write what’s in my head, and if my right to do that only extends to myself, then I’m hobbled.

Every time I sit down and stare at a blank screen, these are the things that are on my mind. Many simply leave others out of their writing: they crank out snappy anecdotes about the fungus thickening their toenails or make listicles of ways parents are actually toddlers. Others, and I admire their courage and ability, own their story and write all the things in their heads, consequences be damned.

There is also the cover of fiction. Elena Ferrante, an author who has deliberately chosen to remain private and unknown, has acknowledged that the only way she can tell her truths is behind the veil of fiction. “She writes with hard-won honesty about subjects that people don’t feel they can write about with their own identity,” says Megan O’Grady, one of the first American journalists to interview Ferrante, which she did via e-mail in 2014. “She writes about hating your mother or your child. She writes about betrayal and sex.” No one is completely sure who Elena Ferrante is, what she looks like, where she lives, and every time she asserts that writing should stand separate from the author, the public becomes more wild to pin down who she is — so they can better probe her fiction for the non-fiction behind it. Readers are desperate to correlate the fiction to reality.

No matter what, it’s risky stuff, the business of putting words to page.

It’s risky stuff, the business of feeling compelled, from a deep, pounding place, to put words to page and to know that most of the recipients of those words have never engaged in the blood-and-sweat process of writing their own stories. Unquestionably: I became a better, sharper, more appreciative and understanding reader once I started trying to figure out how to write.

Unquestionably, I have had personal moments of reckoning when readers have reacted to something I’ve written, moments in which it is revealed I’m an asshole. I have been an asshole; I am an asshole; I will be an asshole. What flummoxes many is this: I’m okay with being an asshole. When my assholery occurs, it’s not on purpose, necessarily. But I learn from the reactions; subsequent to the lesson, I hunker down even tighter. The reactions erode future content. I edit myself. But still: I am okay with being an asshole. At least it feels real, like I’m willing to caress something prickly.

All of this is what I’m thinking about as I run along Brighton Beach on the first truly warm day of the year. This is what I thought about the day before when I ran up Seven Bridges Road, blinded by sunlit diamonds dancing across the surface of Amity Creek. This is what I considered the day before that, running the streets of the Lakeside neighborhood, my musings skidding along the loose gravel lining the newly exposed sidewalks.

Recently out of an immobilizer after shoulder surgery, I’ve been easing back in to running. Some days, the arm swing results in ache and swelling; other days, it feels great. At first, I just walked. Then, eventually, I started trotting for a block or two. Now, wanting to grab hard at this phase of  “free” recovery — leaving behind those days of constant icing, help with showering, thanks when my kids snapped me into my seat belt, groans when I tipped from left to right in the night, frustration at trying to put a liner into a garbage can, struggles to pull up my pants, sighs at how hard it was to open a yogurt container, sobs at the sensation of my bones splintering as red-hot screwdrivers were driven into them — I am running and running and running, outpacing those fragile and tentative weeks.

To feel my feet moving, both arms swaying, is powerful, particularly as Spring hits the city. Sunshine makes my soul sit up straight; the water rushing over waterfalls dazzles me. I am propelling myself from darkness to light.

As I run, I listen to podcasts. My brain is pipping with voices floating into my skull and, always, with the voices that live permanently inside my head. I hear interviews, benefit from people explaining their work and lives, and, always, my thoughts veer towards the analytical. I think about people, their choices, their behaviors, their intersections with their communities. And, always, I have notes. Always, I have observations. I have probing questions. Always. It’s the downfall of analytical thinking: the brain tangles with endless angles.

Often, when I’m running and my brain has had a good perk, I take the ideas and pour them into an essay. Teetering on the line between extrovert and introvert, I need to express externally, but in selective ways. Writing cleans me vein-deep.

Except when my brain has been percolating on matters of raw honesty that would offend.

I can’t put such stuff into writing. I lack the courage, the cleverness, the ability to say all that I would say. It’s frustrating.

I can put such stuff into my husband’s ears. He is right for me that way. I can unleash with a torrent of “And why did he have to…? Plus, wouldn’t it make more sense if…? How is that the best…? Does she ever question…? Isn’t it weird that they…?” — and he, an analytical thinker himself, provides responses that couple emotional with intellectual without being defensive or reactive. He is not threatened by stripped-down perspicuity, something that can strike others as brutal.

Thus, the things I ponder the most deeply and with the most oomph float across oral turf, across the stovetop in a kitchen with a stool next to some spatulas, an ephemeral exchange with a controlled audience.

As well, they live inside my running head, a special space governed by rhythm and unconstrained whirls.

Every day, I am running.

Every day, I am trying to riddle out a way to write about all the things, not just the easy positives. I play around with scenarios of using a pseudonym, simply writing fiction and telling everyone they’re wrong when they claim to spot themselves, or going balls-out and alienating everyone I know. Then I laugh, only a little ruefully, at the appeal of that final option.

Every day, I am returning to myself after some months of struggle. In every way, I am working at increasing my mobility and range of motion.

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The sun makes the pine trees pop bright green, every needle distinct. The bright yellow of the sky illuminates the pebbles I carefully dodge because the single helpful thing the surgeon told me when I saw him a few weeks ago was “Just don’t fall.” The golden cast to the world energizes my cells.

As I hoof down the road, soaking up warmth and glory, I am ramming through frustrations. So many thoughts without a repository.

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.

The trees are a blur, the creek a reassuring burble. Finally, I am starting to feel strong and able again. Never will I be a fast runner; I’m not made for it. Yet I have been fortunate enough to get to a place in life where I don’t care how fast other people can run. All that matters is my own body, part of the landscape, witnessing the world from the intimate vantage of foot travel. It’s complete joy, this feeling of independence and control, and from my diaphragm a notion wells up: “I love being a badass for myself. I missed this.”

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Arms swinging. The miles tick by.

I am so lucky. My body is working. My brain has bones, clutched in pointy claws, to gnaw on. The air is smiling.

Everything is a happy glow, a heartfelt swoop, a wave of peace fingers.

Just as readers would have it.

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Sloggin’ in the Rain

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I like to pretend that life is a musical wherein all the Best Moments are enhanced by atmospheric lighting and the promise of a standing ovation. For me, everything — from the making of pancakes to the folding of laundry — takes on a brighter sheen if it is accompanied by high kicks and jazz hands, all the better if someone emerges from the wings wearing crinolines or drops from the rafters strapped into a harness.

One autumn day in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, however, I was forced to concede that sometimes drama is overrated.

Three months into our whimsical sabbatical year of living abroad, my family had experienced stunning summer heat, but the change of seasons introduced us to a new genre of weather. That October, the stage had been draped with striking scenery: the skies were unrelentingly grey, with ominous clouds hanging overhead that unleashed into pounding sheets of rain which seeped under the door jam and soaked the threshold of the 400-year-old stone house we were renting. Contemplating this dreary backdrop, I was reluctant to explore new valleys and canyons around the village when I went out running, thinking that I’d rather venture into new landscape theaters on sunny, classically-autumn days and avoid the stark topography that smacked of Ibsen more than Gershwin.

Since the weather didn’t seem to be shifting, though, and my time in Cappadocia was ticking away, I decided to throw myself out there and break a leg.

Late in the afternoon, I headed towards the crumbling monastery outside of the village and navigated the warren of trails that zigzagged throughout the valley below. Humming, I took a left whenever the trail diverged. Eventually, I was beneath a panoramic overlook frequented by tour buses that disgorged French and Korean travelers in search of a photo op.

Soon, I realized the overlook tourists were noticing me far below them on the stage of the valley floor–a living, breathing part of the spectacle they’d been ogling, and I fought the impulse to belt out an echoing “Everything’s coming up roses and daffodils” à la Ethel Merman in hopes that my performance would be rewarded with a shower of Turkish lira, raining down from the appreciative audience.

At that moment, a long roll of thunder resonated across the valley, and the action began to rise. Looking up, I saw not stage lights but a black cloud moving with startling swiftness towards my mark. Just above the rapidly re-bussing tourists, the sky popped white with lightning.

There’d be showers raining down upon me all right, but it looked like my show had received the worst of reviews, and early cancellation was imminent.

Crikey. I was a half hour’s run from home, standing at the foot of a cliff somewhere in a confusing valley in the middle of Asia Minor, and the sky was roiling with noise and light.

I was shaking like an understudy who’d forgotten the lyrics.

Taking stock of the situation (dire), sorting through the options (limited), I felt panic dancing in my balcony. Before that moment, my greatest stressors had been adjusting to life in a dusty village, living next door to a donkey, learning to eat drink salted yogurt, and attempting to communicate without verbs. All of that seemed like ice cream at intermission, however, compared to the fast-moving blackness that hung over my solitary figure, threatening genuine danger.

Exposed and alone, I stifled a scream as a bolt of lightning burst from the clouds and connected with the dirt fifty feet away. Fear-driven clarity entered my mind. No one knew where I was. No one was coming to “save” me. No one and nothing on earth was going to fix this for me.

Quite unintentionally, I had been cast as the star of a one-woman show. Quickly, I decided that crouching down and balancing on the balls of my feet felt too passive, too much like allowing the scene to unfold rather than being an active player in it. Despite the cautionary voice in my head telling me to hunker down in the open until the worst had passed, I threw my shoulders back, inhaled from my diaphragm, and took charge of my fate.

Feigning confidence as lightning continued to stab down from the clouds, I ran well for the first few minutes. Even though my glasses were being pelted by raindrops, I could still find the trail. Minutes later, however, my vision blurred into nothingness. The raindrops hardened into stinging. My mood slid into alarm. My pace slowed. There wasn’t a jazz hand or high kick in sight.

A complete inability to see where I was going; a tragic sense of direction; clothes completely sopped; trails that had turned into rushing creeks; impulsive shrieking whenever lightning zapped around me; and a sky that had turned so dark that visibility was nil—all of these realities synergized into a single thought: “Keep moving.”

With less than an hour until dark, I hacked my way around dead-end trails and decided to believe that if I just kept trying, eventually I’d find my way back to something familiar.

However. The lightning was truly on top of me, and that created a danger bigger than dark. More than anything, I needed to find shelter.

In an irony so sharp it could have been scripted, I discovered that, in a region with thousands of abandoned pigeon alcoves, cave homes, lemon caves, and early Christian churches, I couldn’t find a single carved-out opening. If I could find the trail back to my starting point, it would take me only a few minutes to get to the ancient, crumbling monastery—an idea that roused my waning dramaturge and caused her to muse, “What a lark! Then you could tell people that you once sought shelter in a monastery!”

Early Christian monks didn’t know jack about signage, though.

As I kept running trail after trail, unable to find any overhang or refuge, I lapsed into a chant of, “One foot. Now the other. One foot. Now the other.”

Just as I convinced myself that dogged diligence would see me through, the Great Director in the Sky decided to kick up a frigid wind.

On the positive side, the onset of shivering meant being lost suddenly dropped much lower on my list of worries. Completely soaked and well into the second hour of running, I imagined my children introducing themselves to their future in-laws with a fraught summary of youthful tragedy: “My mother was killed by a freak intersection of lightning strike and hypothermia one day when she got lost in a wild valley in Turkey.”

Naturally, states of heightened dramatic tension always break, and it apparently wasn’t time for my grand finale just yet. The orchestra in my heart swelled as—trumpet fanfare!–the sky magically lightened, and the storm blew past, leaving behind only a gentle, steady rain.

I smeared my glasses “dry,” and after five more false starts, I finally happened upon the road leading towards the monastery. Soaked to the marrow, but with a song in my heart, I trotted the last fifteen minutes home, down the main street of the village. Each step squished loudly. My hair dripped rivulets down my torso. My pants refused to stay up, due to the weight of the water pulling them down. My shirt clung to my torso, providing show-stopping burlesque for onlookers accustomed to body-obscuring, layered clothing.

I’ve never before had a more rapt audience than I did on that long stretch from the monastery to the village square. At one point, near the taxi stand, I stopped and took a bow for three men who couldn’t believe the soggy apparition that had emerged from the raindrops. Had one of them not finally blinked, I would have been forced to burst into the chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset” to snap them out of their reverie.

By the time I made my way through the center of the village, the square was Standing Room Only. As had been the case for the previous two hours, I pointed my eyes to the ground and just kept moving…albeit with one hand holding up my sagging pants.

One foot. Then the other.

Nearing home, I considered the power generated from placing one foot in front of the other. Pushing back against fear, carrying on in the face of uncertainty, and moving forward blindly had brought me out of the storm; months before, these same abilities had given me the gumption to pack up my life and plunk it down 7,000 miles from home, in the midst of fairy chimneys, headscarves, and The Call to Prayer.

None of it had been easy. Much of it had been nerve wracking. All of it had been amazing.

A grin spread across my drenched face, and my free hand rose and pointed to the still-clearing sky. Fingers splayed wide, palm pulsing, I saluted the clouds with a triumphant jazz hand of joy.

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A Good Neighbor: Remembering Prince

I pull up to the high school — running late! — and park at the curb. It’s my first time driving since shoulder surgery, my first time behind the wheel in six weeks. I’m shaky.

As I put the car into Park, Allegra bursts through the doors of the school’s glass foyer and hustles to the car. Her face is impassive. Reaching across my body with my left hand, I engage the emergency brake. The car idling, I hop out and let the sixteen-year-old slide into the driver’s seat.

She buckles in, gives me a sideways glance to see if I need any help, and there, then, my question explodes: “Have you heard?

“Heard what? What do you mean?”

My face is red. I am sobbing. Again. I’ve been sobbing for an hour. I thought I could keep it together in public, but I can’t.

In front of the high school, my confused kid at the wheel, I melt down. Grabbing at my glasses, I set them on my lap while I wipe my eyes, cry some more, wipe again.

“Prince died. They just announced it an hour ago.” Saying the words sets me off once more. “He was only 57, and they don’t know what caused it, but they found him in Paisley Park, and…”

I dab at my face, give her a rueful grin, and say, “I’m a wreck. Obviously.”

Equal parts startled and shrugging “just another Thursday with Mom,” Allegra attempts to adjust to the news and my upset. Five minutes before, she’d been stashing books in her locker; she hadn’t realized that sometimes in life, you walk out a door and into someone else’s pain.

Rallying, my girl tells me, “I’m really sorry.”

I laugh a little while I’m crying, tell her I realize it’s weird for me to be so distraught, assure her that we can get going so she doesn’t miss her appointment.

For a quick beat, she is silent. Then she says it again. “I don’t know what else I can say, but I’m really sorry, Mom.”

I thank her, run my sleeve across my eyes, and the adult in the car adjusts her mirrors and pulls away from the curb. Six minutes later, the car is in a parking garage across from the orthodontist’s office. “Hey, kiddo? I’m just going to stay here in the car, okay? You know how to make your next appointment, and be sure you validate the ticket. I just can’t see people right now. Plus, I want to hear what they’re saying on The Current.”

For twenty minutes, I sit in the car, listening to the music that defined decades of my life, listening to grieving associates put words to the shocking loss of their idol, mentor, boss. As I frantically text with a slew of friends, my phone rings. I don’t recognize the number, but I answer it. It’s a particularly special college pal. Outside of a few emails exchanged each year, we’ve largely fallen out of touch.

But Prince died.

She had to call. It’s a short conversation, full of love and memory.

And then she’s off to a couple afternoon meetings, mopping at her eyes, and I’m sitting in a concrete parking garage, my brain a jumble of thoughts.

I remember the summer of 1984, when I was seventeen. At long last, Purple Rain had come to Billings, Montana. Giddily, four of us tittered in the dark theater — Prince! So hot! Seexxxxxxy! At one point during the movie during a particularly lusty solo during which Prince ground his axe into his crotch, I leaned over to my friends and stage whispered, with what passed for humor in that time and in that place, “I’d give anything to be that man’s guitar!”

I remember the dress my mom made me for a formal dance and how it HAD to be purple. With fancy sleeves and flourishes.

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I remember dancing at college, always dancing at college, to his songs, to covers of his songs, our sweaty bodies slamming into each other with abandon, clinking hips with my best buddies in the crowd, our arms raised to the ceiling.

I remember going to see The Jayhawks at the Fine Line in Minneapolis, and midway through the show, the energy in the room changed. Looking over my shoulder, digging my elbow into my pal Colleen’s rib cage, I gaped. There he was, at a table in the back of the room. Of course. He was always doing that — checking out the local scene, seeing what was happening in his city, scoping talent.

I remember dancing at GLAM SLAM, twirling under the lights, laughing with my friends as the room flickered red purple yellow. Then. A buzz. He was there. In the balcony. Watching the floor. Excited, joking yet almost self conscious, we hollered at each other over the driving beat: “WHAT IF HE WANTS US TO BE BACK-UP DANCERS?”

I remember a great regret: an evening of drinking at a Minneapolis bar, getting chatted up by a couple of fellas, and having one of them announce, “My dad is rich. He’s friends with Prince. I know Prince.” When we lost our minds and peppered him with questions, he finally said, “I can call my dad. We can go to Paisley Park tonight, if you want. I’ll have him send a car.” Dubious, guarded, wanting to give over to what felt like exaggerated claims, we watched him make a call. We hemmed. Hawed. Finally said, “Hey, how about a rain check?” Forever, I will bemoan my reluctance to get into a car with strangers.

I remember my husband saying that because he grew up a couple miles from Paisley Park, his family would hear music floating through their windows some nights, the notes soaring from parties and performances, the resonant glamour filtering into their workaday hours.

And that’s why I’m sitting in a parking garage, crying. The sponsor of many of my best times; the inspiration for thousands of my finest gyrations; the badass who refused to let his roots limit his reach; the source of my belief that magic wears boots; the genius who demonstrated it’s possible to be masculine and feminine, black and white, big and small, demanding and accepting, flirtatious and somber, shy and bold, controlled and generous; the artist who redefined self-definition and showed a Montana girl weighted with expectations, shoulds, and people-pleasing habits that it’s beautiful to live however the fuck you want — was gone.

Sitting in the car, digging through the glove box for a napkin, I also remembered something else, something more remote.

I was ten in 1977, and I just didn’t get it. Whenever I turned on the tv or looked at the newspaper — heck, whenever I walked into the produce section of the grocery store — there were all these people, crying and leaning on each other, blowing their noses. Some of them were in a state of hysteria; some of them were even making pilgrimages to a place called Graceland.

What the? So Elvis had died. I knew Elvis. He sang rock ‘n roll. He was famous for helping start it. Or something.

Whoa. Those old people were losing their minds. I mean, calm down already. He was just a singer, and they hadn’t even known him for real.

But now I get it: they had known him for real. Elvis did for my parents’ generation what Prince did for mine. That business of blowing the shutters off a battened-down house and making the unthinkable possible? Elvis did it, too, with his pompadour and swiveling hips. Three years after Elvis’ death, in 1980, a similar sort of collective outpouring happened when John Lennon was shot.

In each case, all those people leaning on each other, crying in public, telling stories about the man who’d changed their concept of the world, of possibility, of acceptable — all of them were comforting each other in the face of a very particular kind of grief: the sadness that rolls intimately through the individual heart yet is shared by millions.

We who loved Prince have been doing that this week. We’ve been sharing our grief together, publicly, in the process assuring ourselves we weren’t alone; we were part of a thrumming mass of love and adoration. So we share our stories about a man of greatness who, to the end, stayed connected to his community of origin. We come together to pay tribute to a complicated genius who was always, unquestionably, A Good Neighbor.

Later in the day on April 21st, after the orthodontist’s appointment, after school, after I’ve stopped crying and startling my teenager, I am given the greatest of gifts: a new Prince memory to treasure.

“Hey, Mom.” I hear my girl’s voice calling from her bedroom.

I’m hanging up some clothes, so I yip, “What?”

No answer.

“What is it, Leggy?” I try again, stuffing the hanger into the closet.

No answer. She always says everything best without using words.

So I do the thing called shutting up and listening.

And there it is. Spinning ’round on her turntable. He’s singing. He’s suggesting, “Let’s go crazy.” The track is full of all the vim and color and joy I ever hoped would pour into my kid’s ears.

Last fall, this same teenager had admitted, as we drove to a Taylor Swift concert, that she’d never really sat down and listened to the guy called Prince. On the spot, her cousin offered up her iPod. Driving towards Minneapolis, we listened to Purple Rain together, the car throbbing with guitar and falsetto.

When it was over, Allegra agreed. Yeah, that was good.

Some days later, I mentioned to my best friend, the same friend I elbowed in the ribs at the Fine Line when Prince slid into the room, that Leggy was getting into vinyl. That she’d recently heard Purple Rain. That she’d liked it. That it was fairly spendy to find a copy, even online.

True to form, this friend, this Colleen, said, “It would be one of the pleasures of my life if I could send that album to your girl.”

So, on that night when my heart is a fragile, vulnerable thing, the sixteen-year-old takes the album she received from her mother’s friend of thirty years, and she sets the needle into the groove.

“Hey, Mom.”

Then his voice.

And all the dots of my life connect in the most elegant circle, a closed loop with pulses of purple sparking in the middle.

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So Many Losers

It’s time to announce the winners of the book giveaway!

The winner of Girl Through Glass is: Linda Solstrand
The winner of Queen of the Night is: Jessica Rapisarda

I’ll be contacting each of you to get mailing information. Read in good health. Smear the pages as  you will. I recommend melted chocolate from cookie dough pops, but that’s personal preference.

As for the rest of y’all who threw your names into the ring but weren’t chosen, sorry you’re losers.

If it helps assuage your feelings of hurt at all, let me assure you: I am the original loser. Compared to my history of loserdom, you’re a g-damn winner.

See, my senior year of high school, a few months before I dropped out (you can read the story of that here: “Jesu, Joy of Jocelyn’s Retiring”), I was nominated to the royalty court for the Sweetheart Dance.

It wasn’t a nomination that resulted from a groundswell of support within the student body.

Rather, a few weeks before Valentine’s Day, the students in the National Honor Society met in the Latin teacher’s room. Our club had been tasked with selecting the nominees for Sweetheart Princess and Sweetheart Prince. Our votes would determine which of our classmates would get their names read over the PA system; which of our classmates would dress up fancy-like and walk around the gym at a special assembly; which of our classmates would be recognized the night of the Sweetheart Dance; which of our classmates might potentially be crowned and dance together in a spotlight, decked in velvety raiment; which of our classmates would be featured in the yearbook.

We’d been tasked with a mighty responsibility, indeed, we of the high GPAs and thick textbooks.

For all our smarts, it hadn’t occurred to any of us that we might nominate from within our ranks. Royalty was for the cheerleaders, majorettes, flags, and jocks. Royalty wasn’t for equation-solvers.

Yet our leader, the Latin teacher — a man who inspires me to this day, and not only because everything I understand about English grammar came from his class — looked around the room at the assembled nerds that morning and said, “Write three girls’ names and three boys’ names on the ballots in front of you. You may only write down names of members of the National Honor Society.”

WHAT?

For a full minute, I sat, absorbing the challenge. I’d been ready to fill in my ballot with the names of “popular” kids who had yet to be nominated for any other royalty court. Whaddya mean, nominate eggheads?

It was a radical notion, this idea that we — readers of Kafka! — could be royalty. It was exciting. It was scary. It was baffling.

Who to nominate? My gaze scanned the room. A few cheerleaders, majorettes, and flags dotted my vision, multi-talented types able to twirl, flip, and annotate. But a couple of them had been nominated for previous royalty courts already. Hmmmm.

What if I…what if I…what if I nominated my friends? Carefully, I considered my crew. Yea. Why not? Grinning, dazzled that the world had just become a place ripe with possibilities I hadn’t known how to imagine, I filled out the ballot with the names of my girls.

A few days later, the nominees were announced over the loudspeaker. Whoa, there was Char!! Oh gravy, and Amy, too! And, woo-hoo, Leigh! Hey, and Kim–such a nice girl!

Wait. WHUUT.

And me?

ME?

A wave of prickles, a full-body flush, started in my scalp and moved down to my toes. Had my life suddenly become one of those 1950s books, like the ones my mom kept on a shelf in the basement, about popular girls?

I was quickly disabused of that idea. Looking around the classroom as the names were announced, I saw annoyance, even disgust, on the faces of my classmates. I detected grumbles and heard one of the Honor Society cheerleaders apologizing to those around her, saying she hadn’t been given a choice, that she had to nominate losers.

Yea, that felt about right: to enjoy a nanosecond of elation before having it ground into a powder of embarrassment.

Fortunately, my friends and I went ahead and flowed with the feeling that being nominated was amazing. Already, at 17, I’d had years of fine tuning selective deafness. This time, I plugged my ears with the powder of elation-cum-embarrassment.

So we squealed. We made phone calls. We talked dresses. Our parents showed up in the gym to snap photos as we linked arms with the prince nominees and circled the gym to half-hearted applause. When the night of the dance arrived, we did hair and make-up together; we sipped from cans and glass bottles; we giggled crazily when we got to the high school.

And then the time came: the announcement of the Sweetheart Prince and Princess.

I knew it wouldn’t be me — not out of some false modesty. With all realism, I knew.

We nominees were corralled up the stairs of the gym, lined up along a balcony where a searchlight moved over our faces. When they announced the winners, Char and Jeff, the light froze on them, the winners.

In darkness, the rest of us gasped, yelled for Char, and made our way down the stairs to the floor of the gym, where we stood, watching Char and Jeff take their spotlight dance.

A few weeks later, the nominees reassembled at the studio of a photographer who would document for the yearbook our momentary rise out of the ranks.
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We were told to wear sweaters. Always sassy, perhaps hoping it would camouflage how unforgiving a fitted crew neck can be on those who are hearty of torso, I accessorized with a necklace borrowed from the jewelry bag my mom kept in her top dresser drawer. Another accessory I could have used was a smile that reached my eyes.

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Posing with the prince nominees was uncomfortable. “Squeeze closer,” the photographer urged, shoving our shoulders into the guys’ chests. Why, I wonder, didn’t the photographer note, “Hey, your collared shirt is bunching underneath your sweater. Also, don’t wear that sweater. You’re always going to benefit from flowy. And can we talk bangs for just a quick sec?”

The winners got their own page in the yearbook. We losers were cast as Everyone Not Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. I’ll take Sandy Duncan for the win, Peter.

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It’s one thing to be a loser princess. For me to have pretended for a solid week that “princess” could possibly suit was laughable. However, “loser princess” was a title I could sport with a hoot.

Then, a few months later, the yearbooks came out.

At that point, I learned a whole new facet of loserdom: being a loser who gets the wrong name plastered on top of her ignominy. Through human error or having some wisenheimer in charge of design, the yearbook tagged me as Kim Burris, my partner Tim as Cal Kunkel.

I still feel like I owe Kim an apology.

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I lucked out with my partner, a light-hearted guy with whom I was used to goofing around. Tim and I made light of it, calling each other Kim and Cal as the school year reached its close. Faintly, it occurred to me that humor neutralizes loser.

But then I’d look at that photo again, and I’d see that soft-faced, Aqua-netted baby wistfully playing princess, and it also occurred to me that eye-liner didn’t make me petite or cute or desirable.

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Getting a smile into those loser eyes was going to take some time. I’d need a change of venue — a trip to Oz. I’d need new peers — people who led with irony. I’d need road trips — in the car alone, finding my own way. I’d need to dance ’til 4 a.m. —  limping home, shoes in hand. I’d need to have my heart held tightly enough that it could be broken. I’d need to walk outside the circle of the gym floor before I could see how restrictive four walls could be. I’d need a few decades of casting about. Flailing. Landing. Unfolding. Navigating the extended arc of life and realizing “winning” is in the end game.

IyesFace

I look at that loser princess now, and I want to send a whispered message back through time.

“It’s going to be all right. Aww, honey, it’s going to be more than all right. For now, you have to stand in the dark, gasping with excitement for all the winners who aren’t you, but eventually you’ll find your spotlight.”

Iyes

I would like to assure those eyes, their flatness telegraphing “Help me,” that one day they will sparkle with droplets from gorgeous snowstorms, that one day they will laugh at kids and loves, that one day they will widen at the realization that the high school definition of “winner” is false, that one day they will fill with tears of astonishment at the compassion of others, that one day they will beam a smile at the cheerleaders, majorettes, flags, jocks, nerds, stoners, geeks, dorks, and princesses

because they are just so happy to see people doing their best.

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Not my mother’s necklace

So, yea, all you losers who didn’t score a book during the giveaway, just remember: it could be worse. At least you aren’t someone who was mandatorily nominated. At least you look good in your sweaters. At least your shoulder isn’t shoved into the chest of the guy who sits next to you in English class. At least people call you by your actual name. At least you’re winners in the ways that truly matter.

Hugs and love to all you losers,

Kim Burris

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Book Giveaway

Book Giveaway

I have a thing about bananas.

Because they are my preferred breakfast food, I need to have them in the house at all times.

If we are out of bananas, or even if we are running low, I can’t relax. If need be, I will zip down to the grocery store after dark, just to grab a bunch.

Sometimes, the next morning, I don’t even eat one of those highly important after-dark bananas.

It’s just that I needed to know they were there.

In case.

I am this way about coffee, too.

Oh, NOW you’re nodding at the screen? You thought I was a little bananas when it came to the bananas, but somehow when I substitute the word coffee, then crazy becomes normal?

To be honest, I have a fair number of things — beyond bananas and coffee — that are integral to my innards feeling peaceful. if the stash of wine is getting low, I need to make sure more wine comes into the house. If the sweets are looking sparse, I won’t rest easy until supplies have been replenished becauseTwizzlersarefundamentaltohappiness. This is true even if I’m going away for the weekend: I feel low-level anxiety if I don’t have snacks along.

Just in case.

This need for security extends beyond just food, of course. If I am packing for a trip, I want to be sure I am bringing along all the possible pairs of shoes I might want. Or if I notice my container of body lotion is running low, I feel better if the replacement is in the house even a week before I need it.

What’s bizarre is that I’m terrible at looking ahead when it comes to predictable, daily life tasks. We are so fortunate that my husband handles our meals because I am absolutely someone who at 6 PM every day, if I were in charge of getting the kids fed, would look around the kitchen and ask, “What you mean dinner?”

The impellent “I will need it; do I have it?” thrum that demands I stockpile, at all times, a full inventory of unnecessary items might indicate I have a tendency towards hoarding. Or maybe I have it in me to become a Doomsday prepper. Or maybe I have too much leisure time. Or maybe I’m just a mother and a woman who’s getting older.

Perhaps we can just accept that this condition exists within me, and leave it there.

I have to say, though, that the impulse towards readiness did help occupy the weeks of anticipation before my recent surgery. Because I wanted to do the surgery during my Spring Break, I scheduled it several months out. Doing this gave me entirely too much time to get worried and anxious — and to watch videos on YouTube at 1 AM in which wild-eyed people who had undergone rotator cuff repair detailed their recoveries. I also had too many weeks to read blogs written by those who had undergone the surgery and to talk to people around town about their experiences with it.

Fortunately, anxiety can be channeled into constructive action. As I counted down to surgery day, I made sure I had in place everything I could reasonably predict I might want or need during the tough days and weeks post surgery.

I had learned that I would not be interested in underwear or bras for some time — because even the simple act of pulling up my pants and getting a shirt on would cause me to break a sweat, and my shoulder would not be able to tolerate the pressure of a bra strap — but when I did feel I could wear a bra again, I would do best with a soft, stretchy one that I could place onto the floor, step into, and pull up my torso with one hand. So I bought a few of those. People had advised me that shirts buttoning up the front would be easier than over-the-head tops; so I invested in a few and also poached a stack from my husband’s closet. I had been told that consistent icing would be essential to my recovery, so I found a system that I could strap onto my shoulder (not that I have used it in the month since surgery: my shoulder has yet to welcome the idea of something being strapped onto it), and then we made some additional ice packs using Ziploc bags, water, and rubbing alcohol. I even had time to remember winter break when I was young and how I would return to school after a week or two off and not remember my locker combination; thus, I entered a note into my phone with my locker number and combination at the gym. As well, in the days before the surgery, I was compelled to vacuum the entire house, scrub the toilets, and make a last ditch effort to get the house relatively clean. Here is evidence of how deep my fear about the surgery ran: I dusted knickknacks.

Then, of course, I thought about all the passive time I would have in bed or in a chair — so many free hours that normally would be devoted to exercise or dickin’ around in the yard or interacting in the world in ways that require the hands. As I considered these hours, it became important that I amass a stack of books, always my best companions during sitting time. I didn’t want books that would make my brain work too hard — hello, Percocet! — but I didn’t want books that were stupid, either. So I read a bunch of reviews online and chatted with friends whom I respect as readers, and I found some titles that would suit. A few of them I got at the library, but a couple of them were not part of the library’s catalog, so I ordered them.

And now, guess what? I have finished one of them and am halfway through the second, and the sun is shining outside, and finally the wind sometimes has an undertone of mildness instead of frigidity, and, well, I’m in a mood for some spring cleaning.

I’m in the mood not to keep these books on the shelf but, rather, to give them away to readers of this blog. I won’t tell you my reactions to either book; the reading experience should belong to you alone. I can tell you, though, that I am at a stage of life where, if I do not enjoy a book, I do not finish it. Both of these books are “finishers” for me.

Here are the two books up for grabs:

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The summary on Amazon describes Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass this way:

An enthralling literary debut that tells the story of a young girl’s coming of age in the cutthroat world of New York City ballet—a story of obsession and the quest for perfection, trust and betrayal, beauty and lost innocence.

In the roiling summer of 1977, eleven-year-old Mira is an aspiring ballerina in the romantic, highly competitive world of New York City ballet. Enduring the mess of her parent’s divorce, she finds escape in dance—the rigorous hours of practice, the exquisite beauty, the precision of movement, the obsessive perfectionism. Ballet offers her control, power, and the promise of glory. It also introduces her to forty-seven-year-old Maurice DuPont, a reclusive, charismatic balletomane who becomes her mentor.

Over the course of three years, Mira is accepted into the prestigious School of American Ballet run by the legendary George Balanchine, and eventually becomes one of “Mr. B’s girls”—a dancer of rare talent chosen for greatness. As she ascends higher in the ballet world, her relationship with Maurice intensifies, touching dark places within herself and sparking unexpected desires that will upend both their lives.

In the present day, Kate, a professor of dance at a Midwestern college, embarks on a risky affair with a student that threatens to obliterate her career and capsizes the new life she has painstakingly created for her reinvented self. When she receives a letter from a man she’s long thought dead, Kate is hurled back into the dramas of a past she thought she had left behind.

Told in interweaving narratives that move between past and present, Girl Through Glass illuminates the costs of ambition, secrets, and the desire for beauty, and reveals how the sacrifices we make for an ideal can destroy—or save—us.

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The Amazon summary for Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night describes it this way:

Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.

As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.

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So it’s spring, and the surgery is behind me, and I’m too busy healing to find the energy to dust books. Help a sister out, and take these babies off my hands.

It pains me to say that I cannot ship these books outside of the United States without the cost becoming prohibitive. Thus, my apologies to readers outside of the United States — but I checked the rates at the post office the other day, and it would cost as much as the books themselves to send them even to Canada.

However, if you are in the United States, and either of these books interests you, please leave a comment below. If you are interested in both books, please leave two comments so that you can be entered into the lottery for both. While it’s enough for you simply to indicate which book you are interested in, I personally would find the comments much more interesting if you also told me about something that you have won before. For example, my husband once entered a corn-on-the-cob eating contest, and after he managed to scarf down five cobs in two minutes, he won a luxe hooded sweatshirt — which he promptly gave away because it was not his style. In truth, very few looks properly complement a chest splattered with yellow niblets.

This giveaway will remain open until 5 PM CST on Tuesday, April 19, at which point I will count up the comments left for each book. If there are 20 comments for one of the books, I will go to Paco or Allegra and say “Pick a number between one and 20.” If the kid chooses the number three, and you are the person who left the third comment for that book (based on the time of posting) you will win it. You get the gist.

I’ll announce the winners next week and mail out the books shortly thereafter.

Okay, it’s time for me to go for a walk. I’m still not driving, but we’re getting low on bananas, so I need to shuffle to the store.

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The Shoehog’s Fluevblog

When I was in my early twenties, I lived in a cabin outside of Boulder, Colorado, with some friends. One of my roommates loved animals and was the owner of a wolf — technically 15/16 wolf — and a ferret. Also noteworthy was the personality of the animal owner, a woman who was eternally willing to run Lady Macbeth’s lines in the shadowed corners of her poorly lit personal drama. That was a memorable stage of my life.

It was also when I decided to learn to bake bread. There I was, at 8000 feet of elevation, trying to befriend yeast. A few inedible, brick-hard loaves resulted from hours of labor, and I allowed that I was not cut out to be a bread baker.

Other people had figured it out. It was not that the task was impossible. It was just that I needed someone’s example and expertise if I ever hoped to pull anything out of the oven besides a steel-toed boot covered with a dusting of flour.

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Earlier in life, in my tween or early teen years, our church arranged to have a bus transport people interested in cross-country skiing to some trails an hour distant. United by love for Jesus, respect for the liturgy, a sense of Christian community, and a belief that strapping sticks to the feet qualified as a good time, a busload of parishioners made the trip.

My sister and I were on the bus that day, hoping to learn about this thing called skiing. When the bus arrived at the trailhead, the outdoor enthusiasts hopped off, clipped into their equipment, and skied towards the tree line. My sister and I, having never experienced cross-country skis before, were left gaping at their retreating forms, leaning wobbily on our poles, with no idea what to do or how to move our bodies. For 20 minutes, we attempted to slide, glide, hoist, propel, and grapple our way up the small berm at the edge of the parking lot so that we could get to the system of trails.

Eventually, young, frustrated, and having learned an important lesson about being part of a Christian community, we gave up. It took us 10 minutes to figure out how to remove the skis from our feet, but once we did, we skulked back to the bus and sat there, moping, for the rest of the afternoon until everyone returned — glowing and exhilarated from their time under God’s Big Sky.

With the assistance and direction of someone who understood cross-country skiing, that afternoon would have played out very differently for us — which, in turn, could have changed a lot of significant things for me, a big girl who didn’t think sports were for her.

****

When I was 24, I was driving the 10 hours from Billings, Montana, to Moscow, Idaho — something people in the West call “a quick jaunt” — when, just as I was cresting Lookout Pass, a red light came to life on my dashboard. A red light on the dashboard has the ability to change the rhythm of my heartbeat. It can make me whisper, my voice both a challenge and a comfort, “Hey, Car, don’t you understand that you are supposed to give and give and give and never ask anything in return?”

By myself, with little money, needing to be in Moscow the next morning for the start of assistantship training for graduate school, I felt panicky. It was 4 PM on a Sunday. In addition to the red light on the dashboard, which I would blithely ignore as long as possible, I also was noticing a lessening of power in the engine. I would push on the gas, and it wouldn’t respond with oomph. That, I could not ignore.

If ever there was a moment for me to turn down “Steady On” by Shawn Colvin and replace her dulcet tones with a string of forcefully gnashed expletives, this was it.

Mentally gaming out the options, I decided to pull off at the next exit and see if any service stations happened to be open. I pulled into the first gas station I spotted; inside was the poster version of an Idaho woman who worked behind a gas station counter, from her appliquéd sweatshirt to the crispness of her bangs. Quickly, I filled her in on my situation.

“Oh, honey,” she commiserated, “this is a fine kettle of fish. Everything’s closed around here on Sundays, so you might need to grab a motel for the night and see if you can’t get it fixed tomorrow.”

No tears actually hit my cheeks. However, my woebegone puppy dog eyes penetrated the teddy bear appliqué, and her heart was moved. “Garsh, let me just see if we can’t do something for you,” she said, looking over her shoulder towards a back room. Surprising me, she called out “Jango! Come out here and see if you can help this woman. She’s in a pinch.”

Emerging from the back room was a 110-pound man, at least 4 pounds of which was facial hair. His entire vibe communicated: I ate the mushrooms at a Creedence Clearwater Revival concert. This was definitely someone who had set a burning cigarette or two onto the edge of the open hood of a car while he fiddled around with the engine. This was definitely someone for whom a red light on the dashboard was whoa, dude, nothing to get riled about.

After the sweatshirt woman explained my circumstances to Jango, he said he’d be happy to take a look and see if there was anything he could do to restore some pep to my Honda. Popping the hood, lighting a cigarette, setting it on the edge of the car, he dove in.

A few minutes later, he stood in front of me, dragging deeply on his Marlboro. “Your alternator’s gone out. Once that light came on your dashboard, your battery stopped charging, so in not too long, your car won’t drive anymore at all until the alternator is running again.”

I stood silently, my mouth moving like a beta fish nibbling crumbs from the surface of the aquarium water.

Continuing, Jango offered, “I could probably jerry-rig something for you today that might get you over to Moscow, but you’ll want to get a real fix as soon as possible.”

Then he dove back under the hood, cigarette dangling from two fingers this time, an empty Mountain Dew can serving as ashtray. While he tinkered with the engine, appliqué lady and I chatted — our talk ranging from car repairs to gas station customers to the concept of graduate school — and in no time at all, Jango popped up, stretched his back, and jumped into the driver’s seat. Turning the key, he started the car; leaving it idling, he looked under the hood and then at me. “We’ll just let this run for a bit,” he said, “and get your battery charged up. It’ll keep charging as you’re driving, too. But definitely, once you’re settled in Moscow, you need to take this into a real garage. See, the thing I did to your car? It’s not something that any licensed place could ever do. It’s just a temporary patch that I fashioned out of supplies at hand.”

What was Jango’s fix? He had taken the tab from the top of the Mountain Dew can and attached it to the alternator by way of grease magic and a sprinkling of dandruff, thus creating some sort of essential connection that was beyond my Jane Austen-reading ken. Suddenly, Mr. Darcy didn’t seem like such a hero after all — because hell if that cravat-wearing fop had it in him to cement the doohickey onto the whatserfuzzit and make a thing go.

As I drove away from the gas station, I considered Jango’s skill versus my ineptitude. Before I would be able to do any sort of car repair, much less an ad hoc one I jimmied on the spot, I would need years of training, classes, and shots of Everclear. For me to ever learn what he knew, I would require extended guidance.

****

At this point, if your eyes are rolling around in your head, your palms are itching to slap me, and you’re barking at your screen, “Jocelyn, I thought this was a post about shoes,” then good.

Here’s the thing: this is a story about shoe shopping, but it is a story about so much more. That’s why I had to relate those other vignettes first; that’s why you had to submit to an extended preamble.

Sure, I recently gamboled through a supremely wonderful afternoon of shopping at a store where the shoes are whimsical, funky, exquisitely made, and expensive. I recently pirouetted through a couple hours of giddy joy in a Fluevog storefront, hours during which my stomach jumped with excitement, and my hands petted all the leather in a fifteen-foot radius.

Fluevog blurb

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During those shopping hours, there was a much bigger story at play — the next installment in a lifetime of comprehending how much I don’t know and how much I would like to know — of understanding that I can either sulk on the bus nibbling on a loaf of Wonder Bread, or I can tune into the aspirational examples that surround me and try to figure some things out.

As I tried on a pair after pair of delicious shoes in the Fluevog store, I wasn’t mastering yeast, and I wasn’t learning how to ski, and I wasn’t tinkering with an alternator.

Rather, as the recipient of thoughtful gifts, I was absorbing the nuances of generosity.

I was in that store because I have a best friend, a confederate since age 18, who, knowing I had both a surgery and a birthday coming up, did some considering. She thought about who I am, what makes me happy, what she had seen me squeal about, and how she might apply her observations to gently play a role in bringing me joy.

I was in that store because I have a husband, my boon companion for 17 years, who, to celebrate my birthday, did some considering. He thought about what spills out of my closet, what makes me dance for no reason, what gets me talking so that I have to wipe spittle off my lips when I’m done, and how he might apply his observations to gently play a role in bringing me joy.

Without those examples of thoughtful gift giving, I would never have been in that store having the time of my life. I would never have stood surrounded by chic displays of shoes, feeling understood and embraced and loved. Without those examples, I would never have learned an essential lesson of gifting: a good present is not simply about getting something for someone (“It was on sale!” “I hope she’ll like it!” “I didn’t need it anymore!” “Who doesn’t need curtains?” “It’s a noble cause!” “Well, I know he likes games, so…”).

Nope. An excellent gift is an affirmation, a connection, a heart-moving message that assures, “I see you.”

Currently, I am okay as a gift giver, but I’m not great. I have a lot of room to improve, to learn how to think through who the recipient really is, to challenge myself to explore what would bring someone else pleasure and not just what would “do the job.”

For sure, as I tried on multiple pairs, I was straight up loving the shoes. However, underneath all the lacing and prancing and admiring, I was storing away a memory: this is what it feels like to be given the perfect gift.

For me, the perfect gift was tactile, active, and spread out over stages. I had to get in there, try some things on, weigh some choices.

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For me, the perfect gift required mulling and culling and ahhhing.

Eventually, I narrowed it down to three pairs.

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At that point, I needed an assist. My friend Kirsten had driven me to the store, served as photographer, and been my metaphorical hand holder as we spun around in circles, giggling and getting dizzy.

She was sitting on the floor, grinning at me, wholly enjoying the afternoon. Torn, I said to her, “I think the two-tone ones with the steampunk heel feel like ‘me,’ and I did send you a picture of them during the faculty meeting yesterday when I was bored. So they feel right. But I really love the aqua ones and the paisley ones with the cool ‘hoof’ heel.”

Kirsten wisely pointed out that I wear a lot of black and grey, so the paisley shoes would work into that nicely.

“Okay, then,” I told her, “it’s either the two-tone ones or the paisley ones…”

Her face breaking in half with a smile, Kirsten said, “Oh, no, pal. You’re getting them both.”

I stared at her, silently, my mouth moving like a beta fish nibbling crumbs from the surface of the aquarium water.

“Yea, you’re getting two pairs. I’m buying you a pair, too. Consider it a down payment on editing Virginia’s next translated novel,” she joked.

As is my way, I burst into tears.

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This day, which had already been the perfect gift from two people who consistently demonstrate how to live generously, had just become bigger. The lesson I was learning widened. In her willingness to run with a moment, make dreams possible, and turn great into glorious, Kirsten was teaching me, too.

In a state of shock, vaguely in need of a nap or a shot of Everclear, I headed to the counter to check out. I handed over my gift certificates. Kirsten handed over her credit card.

When we walked out of the store, my heart was full of joy.

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No doubt, the shoes had me over the moon.

But more than the shoes. It was the people. The gifts that they are in my life. The example they set for me.

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At the end of it all, what I really hope is this:

if I am fortunate enough to keep learning lessons for decades to come, maybe one day I’ll bake some bread or fix an alternator wearing these:

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A Day in the Life: The Director of Social Services

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I am the Director of Social Services at a not-for-profit continuing care community in Tucson, Arizona. The facility, Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, offers a multitude of living options, all on one campus. We provide independent living (where residents come to the dining room for meals, but receive no other assistance), assisted living, advanced assisted living, secure dementia/memory care, long term care, and my specialty, short-term rehab services (sometimes referred to as “sub-acute care”). I work very closely with rehab patients, their families, and our interdisciplinary team to ensure that each patient has a successful rehabilitative with us. Patients come to us following hospitalization for planned procedures (hip or knee replacements, for example), traumatic events (falls, fractures, accidents in the home), or illnesses. Our job is to help them in regaining as much function, mobility, and independence as possible before discharging them either back to their previous setting, or helping them explore alternative discharge options as needed. On average, I am overseeing 40-45 rehab patients at a time, with 13-18 admissions per week. That means there are also 13-18 discharges each week. No two days are exactly the same.

This was today:

0700 Arrive all shining and happy to my office, check my email, and print the daily update from our admissions office, letting us know what’s happened over the past 24 hours. Who was admitted? Who was discharged? Who changed units or rooms? Was anyone sent out to the hospital? Today’s tally from yesterday’s rally: 5 admissions, 4 discharges, 1 to the hospital. Print out face sheets (demographics) for each of the new admissions, put them in my tracking book, make a set for my officemate, who is still basking in the glow of a 5-day weekend.

0715 Check voice messages, answer emails

0730 Son of a rehab patient and his wife are at my door, distraught because patient is not doing well, and they need guidance. Dad is 91, has experienced multiple emotional and physical traumas over past 3 months. Wife of 72 years passed away 4 weeks ago, 16 year-old dog died 2 weeks after that. Patient himself has multiple chronic conditions — is legally blind, hard of hearing, experiencing increased confusion and presenting with “failure to thrive.” He also suffers from poor appetite, poor intake, lack of progress in therapies, repeated requests to “just let me beeeeeeee.” Forty-five minutes of counseling, presenting options, encouraging them to work together as a family and help patient achieve HIS goals, which may be completely different from the kids’ goals. Discussion included hospice option if their goal turns out to be just getting dad home to his own environment and not putting him through more therapy and aggressive medical treatment.

0830 Daily morning meeting with department heads to review admissions, discharges, potential admits, incoming respite stays, upcoming discharges. Update followed by clinical reviews…who’s developed an infection? Who’s out of isolation, has abnormal labs, or is on IV antibiotics? Who’s had a change in condition, needs a psych consult, or has follow-up ortho appointments today?

0930 Review list of rehab patients who are due for a team review/care conference on Thursday. Contact a family member for each patient and invite them to join us for a 30-minute review of therapy progress, nutritional status, clinical status, and to discuss discharge planning. Family members may attend in person along with the patient, or they may join us by speakerphone. By the end of the day, had successfully made contact with 8 family members from 8 different families and explained 8 different times what to expect at the meeting. I also wrote out 8 reminder cards for patients, letting them know the day and time of their conference. Along the way, I addressed concerns such as Medicare coverage, lost pajamas, need of assistance completing power of attorney paperwork, guidance on advanced directives and living wills, “too much Kosher food,” adult sons who haven’t seemed to have mastered the weaning stage (!!), and anxiety over one patient’s upcoming PET scan (new cancer diagnosis). One of the patients with whom I met is finally ready to admit that perhaps returning to home on her own is REALLY not an option and needed much support and guidance about what a “Plan B” might look like. Referral made to placement agency for assistance.

1030 Assessments!! Assessments! I administer cognitive, mood, behavior and discharge planning assessments for rehab patients on Day 5, Day 14, and Day 30. Cognition assessment looks at orientation, attention, organizational thinking, and short term memory and comes in the form of a one-to-one, standardized interview. The mood assessment is also a standardized interview which asks specific questions about signs and symptoms of sad mood or depression over the past 14 days. The behavior assessment information can be found in electronic, daily charting by the nursing assistants or via progress notes from licensed nursing staff. And, finally, the discharge planning assessment. What’s the goal? What are the barriers? Is patient on track to meet his/her goals? Is an outside resource needed to assist with planning? What supports are in place already? What additional supports might be utilized to make patient’s discharge the most successful? After all assessment information has been gathered, it’s time to analyze the results and modify care plans accordingly. Has the patient had a change in mood or behavior? Are they showing signs and symptoms of increasing depression? Does their post-anesthesia confusion and disorientation appear to be clearing? Are they having increased behavior symptoms — refusing care, being verbally or physically aggressive, or being socially inappropriate? If so, what might be the cause? Dementia diagnosis? Cognitive impairment? Language barriers? Hearing or vision deficits?

1215 Phone calls to follow up with patients who have recently discharged. I call and touch base with each patient 5-7 days after they leave the facility and usually start the conversation with this open-ended question: “How are things going since you discharged?” I find out whether or not their home health services have started, whether they’ve gotten their prescriptions filled and meds set up for administration. I find out if they’ve made a follow-up appointment with their PCP (primary care physician, not hallucinogenic drug), and if they haven’t yet, I strongly encourage them to set this is up as an important piece of the continuity of care and prevention of re-hospitalization. During these phone calls, I often field questions about additional resources such as meal programs, additional custodial care services, or hear how their bowels have responded to being home.

1330 Meeting with a Pima Community College social work student who needs to visit with a real, live social worker and ask some fine, cookie-cutter questions about the organization, the academic and licensure requirements, the services provided, the clients who receive said services, etc., etc. I accepted this request because I, too, was a student not so long ago, and I had a similar assignment early on. I had a little less facial hair, and I hope my hands shook less from nerves than this young man’s.

1400 Update progress notes from assessments, conversations, discharge planning conversations, referrals. Complete or update appropriate care plans.

1530 Difficult conversations with 2 families about prognosis and needs for alternative discharge plans, referrals to placement agencies. More importantly, support for making decisions that would be most in line with patient’s beliefs and goals. Meeting again with son from earlier this morning. Family has decided to get Dad home with 24/7 care and the additional support of hospice services. “He just wants to be done,” they tell me. I already knew that. They were not planning on losing Dad so quickly after saying “good bye” to Mom. Orders obtained from physician, referral made to TMC Hospice, family updated.

1610 Notices of non-coverage received from Caremore (HMO) regarding the upcoming discharge of two of its members. Notice lets patients know that their insurance coverage will end 2 days from now, March 31, and that they are expected to discharge from the facility (or become self-pay) the following day. (Note: Caremore was not dropping their members because it’s the end of the month! These two particular patients had met their therapy/rehab goals, and were ready to return home. The rounding nurse practitioner had seen the patients that morning and determined they were ready for discharge, from an insurance/payer prospective. Fortunately for me, on this day, the patients also felt like they were ready for discharge and were expecting the news. This is not always the case, but that’s a whole other story.) I met with each patient, explained the notice, discussed discharge plans, equipment needed, services that will be ordered by Caremore, obtained patient’s signature acknowledging having received and understood the notice, provided them with a copy, and notified a family member of planned DC for April 1st. Advised patient and family of optimal discharge window, discharge process, answered questions regarding services, etc., etc. Wrote progress notes reflecting same.

1700 Notified that patient scheduled for discharge tomorrow has critical lab values, is starting on IV fluids, and will remain on a skilled stay until clinically stable. Called and put home health agency services on hold, notified new adult care home that patient would be delayed in her admission there, and cancelled transportation.

1720 Shut off the lights, closed the door to my office.

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And that was Tuesday.

So, now, you may say to yourself, “Wow! That’s a whole lot of people time for an introvert, isn’t it?!?” The answer is “YES! Yes, it is!” So, now, you may say to yourself, “I wonder how she balances intense people time with home life?” The answer is so simple. My wife works in the wild, wild, muy intensivo world of cardiology at a teaching hospital here in Tucson and is at work each morning by 0345. That’s correct — 3:45am. By the time I slink home from my day in the trenches, she has been home for several hours and is, in fact, in bed already, in order to rise and shine at 1:30am for a pre-work run or boxing work-out. When my alarm goes off at 0430, she’s already well into her work day. We are like two ships passing in the night, which is actually really good for us both. We both get quiet time at the home we share with our four dogs and one cool cat. We communicate by texts and notes on the counter and can usually laugh across the distance together at least once a day. To prep for my day ahead, I usually get a 3-mile run in each morning at 5:30. It helps me center myself and run 2 or 3 of the dogs to prep THEM for several hours of waiting for their “other mother” to come home.

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Sometimes, on the way home from work, if it’s been a particularly tough day, I may shed a tear or two for my people. I often meditate while driving home and breathe out all that I have breathed in throughout the day. I go to yoga class 2 nights a week and catch up with friends and family through the wonder that is social media. On the weekends, my wife and I hike together, do yard work together, take in a movie, work on a creative art project, or just hang out together. We each love our jobs, thrive on the intensity of our days, and because we each have space during the workweek to recharge, we can fully enjoy one another’s company on the weekends. Plus, she’s really cute. And funny. I like that.

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I think, too, that we because we see daily how quickly life can change — a misstep, an accident, a catastrophic medical event — we have a deeper appreciation for our physical health, freedom, and independence, and are less apt to sweat the small stuff in our daily lives.

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Linda and her wife, Keri
Linda and her wife, Keri

Linda Solstrand returned to college as a non-traditional student at the age of 35. Her first go-around at higher education did not end Super Well. The administration at North Dakota State University actually encouraged her NOT to return the following quarter, which was fine with her, because she had a whole lot more partying to do. Eventually, however, the call to “knock it off and get back to learning” came, and she started back at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, with one little class that first semester, then 3 little classes, and then “What the heck, let’s just DO this,” until she had completed her BA in Sociology with a double minor in Psychology and Women’s Studies in 2005. But she wasn’t done yet! She was accepted to the Master of Social Work program at UMD, and after 2 years of full-time study, 2 internships, and roughly 4,385 papers, she completed her master’s degree! (She notes: the morning after commencement, she was walking around her home, feeling a slight discomfort…what could it be? Oh, yes! Her pants were on backwards. Her BFF since second grade, who had come from New York for the festivities, shook her head in sad disbelief and uttered, “And YOU have a master’s degree.” And then they laughed until they almost peed a little bit.)

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Books for 13-Year-Olds

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Recently, I did some crowd sourcing on Facebook, asking folks for help in coming up with a book that Paco and a couple of his friends — a group of seventh graders — could read for school as a sort of book club. Now, Paco is a persnickety reader. He wanted a book that was either sci-fi or fantasy, but nothing post-apocalyptic, and when it comes to romance, he says, “I find that very boring.”

Two of the three boys are very into playing Dungeons and Dragons, but the third boy is lukewarm about that type of imagination-based gaming. In a certain way, this further restricted the book options — because one of the kids is very literal as a reader while the other two enjoy the fantastical. Anyhow, we were feeling desperate that the three of them could ever arrive at a point of agreement.

Facebook Nation did not disappoint. Within a few hours, there were more than 44 comments and suggestions. Readers do love to talk about books!

After the thread of comments died down, I was approached by a handful of participants, asking if I would ever compile a master list of the suggestions. Quite happily, I started copying and pasting all the ideas into a document. Just as I was finishing the initial copying and pasting, I received a message from a longtime blog reader and now good friend, Jan Indermill.

Pointing out that she had two capable typing hands and a willing heart, she offered to compile the list, along the way adding in further information about the series a book might be from, what kind of appeal the book might have, testimonials from readers — and she even alphabetize the entire thing!

After putting in many hours, Jan sent me the list below. I, personally, have never gravitated towards sci-fi or fantasy, but when so many of my friends and family and former students are enthusiastic about these genres, I feel like I should expand my range. Thus, we will not only be using this list for Paco in the future, we will be using it for all of us.

So, for any of you looking for new ideas of what you or your teens might enjoy reading, here is a wonderfully inspired and comprehensive list. I’ll let you look it over before telling you which book Paco and his friends agreed upon.

Also, I do have this list saved both in Excel and Word, so if you would like me to email you the list as a document, just give me a shout, and I can do that.

Here we go:

Title Series Name Author Other Books in Series Possible Appeal
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy Adams, Douglas The Restaurant at The End of the Universe; Life, The Universe and Everything; So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish; Mostly Harmless; And Another Thing Romance free!
Short Stories Asimov, Isaac  
Entanglement: The Greatest Mysteries in Physics Axel, Amir D.  
Short Stories Bradbury, Ray  
Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury, Ray  
Sundiver The Uplift Novels Brin, Glen David Startide Rising; The Uplift War
The Sword of Shannara The Original Shannara Series Brooks, Terry The Elfstones of Shannara; The Wishsong of Shannara – and more. There are at least 12 books in the series. Detailed fantasy world inhabited by elves, humans, warlocks. Set in the future, the plot (1st book?) involves a search for a magical sword needed to defeat an evil warlock.
Red Rising Red Rising trilogy Brown, Pierce Golden Son; Morning Star Set on Mars
Storm Front The Dresden Files Butcher, Jim 15 novels Private investigator and wizard Harry Dresden investigates supernatural disturbances in modern-day Chicago.
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass The Cinder Spires Butcher, Jim 9 books are planned “Absolutely awesomesauce steampunk book that I couldn’t put down.”
Ender’s Game Ender saga Card, Orson Scott 14 novels, 13 short stories, a gazillion comic books “The author has some crap political/social opinions but his books about that universe are great reads.” “He’s very weird and Mormon-y but has some good books.” “Bad politics; good sci-fi.”
Graceling Graceling Realm series Cashore, Kristen Fire; Bitterblue Parental warning: subject matter could be advanced for some younger readers.
The Sword The Sword, The Ring, and The Chalice Chester, Deborah The Ring; The Chalice
City of Bones The Moral Instruments Clare, Cassandra City of Bones; City of Ashes; City of Glass; City of Fallen Angels; City of Lost Souls; City of Heavenly Fire Paranormal romance/urban fantasy
The Children of Amarid LonTobyn series Coe, David B The Outlanders; Eagle-Sage
Half Moon Investigations Not a series, but the author has told people he plans a sequel Colfer, Eoin No additional books have been published yet “My son laughed out loud while reading” From Wiki plot synopsis: Fletcher Moon (often called “Half-Moon” due to his short stature) is a natural born investigator. Knowing this, April, a girl from his school, comes to him for help in finding a lock of hair that she believes to have been stolen.
Over Sea, Under Stone Dark Is Rising sequence Cooper, Susan The Dark Is Rising; Greenwitch, The Grey King; Silver On the Tree
The Spook’s Apprentice The Wardstone Chronicles Delaney, Joseph 14 books in series Romance free! Tom Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son, is apprenticed to John Gregory to become a Spook – a master fighter of supernatural evil.
Pawn of Prophecy The Belgaraid series Eddings, David Queen of Sorcery; Magician’s Gambit; Castle of Wizardry; Enchanters’ End Game
The Guardians of the West The Mallorean series Eddings, David King of the Murgos; Demon Lord of Karanda; Sorceress of Darshiva; The Seeress of Kell
Welcome to Night Vale Not a series — but there’s a podcast!! Fink, Joseph and Cranor, Jeffrey Romance free!
Time and Again Time Series Finney, Jack From Time to Time Stephen King says: “THE great time travel novel.”
The Ruins of Gorlan Ranger’s Apprentice Flanagan, John The Burning Bridge; The Icebound Land and more.  There are at least 12 books in the series, and at least one prequel. Old school sword & sorcery “Imagine if the Rangers from Lord of the Rings took apprentices — what kind of life would that be?” Amazon customer review by EA Solinas
The Outcasts The Brotherband Chronicles Flanagan, John The Invaders; The Hunters; Slaves of Socorro; Scorpion Mountain; The Ghostfaces (publ date June 2016) Humorous writing style – “Snarling bad guys and stout hearted good guys, what more could you ask for?” Amazon customer review by Bill
Flashman The Flashman Papers Fraser, George MacDonald ??18 books?? Flashman is an antihero who often runs from danger in the novels. Nevertheless, through a combination of luck and cunning, he usually ends each volume acclaimed as a hero.
Inkheart Inkheart trilogy Funke, Cornelia Inkspell; Inkdeath Romance free!
The Graveyard Book Not a series Gaiman, Neil Romance free!
Stardust Not a series Gaiman, Neil Romance free!
Good Omens Gaiman, Neil and Pratchett, Terry Parental warning: double check that this is age-appropriate.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley Not a series, but there is a sequel Garner, Alan The Moon of Gomrath (sequel)
My Side of the Mountain George, Jean Craighead
Myths of the Norsemen Not a series, but author has written many works based in other myths. Green, Roger Lancelyn
The Magicians Grossman, Lev The Magician King; The Magician’s Land “13 may be a bit young for this series” High school student Quentin Coldwater attends a college of magic in NYC.
Dune Dune series Herbert, Frank There are five sequels
Stormbreaker Alex Rider Horowitz, Anthony Point Blanc; Skeleton Key and more. There are at least 10 books in the series. 007 style spy stories with a 13-year-old protagonist
Into The Wild Warrior Series Hunter, Erin Into The Wild; Fire and Ice; Forest of Secrets; and more.  There are a gazillion books! 4 clans of wild cats
Rise of the Wolf Wereworld series Jobling, Curtis Rage of Lions; Shadow of the Hawk; Nest of Serpents; Storm of Sharks; War of the Werelords “Imagine a world ruled by Werelords–men and women who can shift at will into bears, lions, and serpents. When Drew suddenly discovers he’s not only a werewolf but the long-lost heir to the murdered Wolf King’s throne, he must use his wits and newfound powers to survive.” Amazon blurb
The Eye of the World Wheel of Time Jordan, Robert The Great Hunt; The Dragon Reborn. There are 14 books, including a prequel.
The Phantom Tollbooth Juster, Norton (illus by Jules Feiffer)
The Stonekeeper Amulet Kibuishi, Kabo There are seven books in the series Graphic novels
Helmet for My Pillow Leckie, Robert
Earthsea Cycle LeGuin, Ursala
The Word of Unbinding (short story) and A Wizard of Earthsea Earthsea LeGuin, Ursala The series comprises 8 short stories and 5 novels
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe Chronicles of Narnia Lewis, C.S
Legend Legend series Lu, Marie Prodigy; Champion dystopian?
The Merchant of Death  The Pendragon series MacHale, DJ There are 10 books in the series Bobby Pendragon, an American teenager, discovers that he must prevent the destruction of the ten “territories”: distinct but interrelated space-time realities.
Dragonflight Dragonriders of Pern McCaffery, Anne and/or Todd Dragonquest; The White Dragon and more. There are at least 22 books in the series. People have empathic abilities with their dragons. And space travel!
Riddle Master trilogy McKillip, Patricia
McKinley, Robin anything by this author “Kick ass female characters”
Wildwood The Wildwood Chronicles Meloy, Colin (of the Decembrists) ? It looks like all the Chronicles are published in one volume? gorgeous illustrations
Elric of Melniboné Elric of Melniboné stories Moorcock, Michael ?17 novels??
The Night Circus Not a series Morgenstern, Erin Romance free! A phantasmagorical fairy tale set near an historical Victorian London in a wandering magical circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise.
Beyonders: A World Without Heroes Beyonders Trilogy Mull, Brandon
Fablehaven Fablehaven Mull, Brandon Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star; Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague; Fablehaven: Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary; Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison Secret nature preserve for magical creatures
Midnight for Charlie Bone Children of the Red King (sometimes called Charlie Bone series) Nimmo, Jenny The Time Twister; The Blue Boa; Castle of Mirrors; Charlie Bone and The Hidden King; Charlie Bone and The Wilderness Wolf; Charlie Bone and The Shadow of Badlock; Charlie Bone and The Red Knight Romance free!
His Majesty’s Dragon Temeraire Novik, Naomi There are 8 books in the series; a 9th book will be published in 2016 Dragons!
Master & Commander Aubrey-Maturin O’Brian, Patrick 21 novels in series; the 21st novel was unfinished when O’Brian died in 2000
Eragon The Inheritance Cycle Paolini, Christoper Eldest; Brisingr; Inheritance A teenage boy and his dragon struggle to overthrow an evil king.
Trickster series especially recommended, but anything by this author is recommended Pierce, Tamara
Pratchett, Terry anything by Pratchett
The Golden Compass His Dark Materials Pullman, Phillip The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Riggs, Ransom Not a series
The Lightning Thief Percy Jackson series Riordan, Rick The Sea of Monsters; The Titan’s Curse; The Battle of the Labyrinth; The Last Olympian
The Name of the Wind The Kingkiller Chronicle Rothfuss, Patrick The Wise Man’s Fear; a 3rd book is promised?
Homeland The Legend of Drizzt Salvatore, R.A. Exile; Sojourn – and more. There are at least 28 books in the series. Appealing to D&D fans?  Follows the boy-child Drizzt, a Dark Elf, to maturity as he seeks harmony in an evil (?) matriarchal society.
The Final Empire Mistborn Trilogy Sanderson, Brandon The series includes two trilogies, a transitional novel between the trilogies, and, apparently, at least one book still to be published. Anything & everything by this author… but Mistborn Trilogy is a good place to start.
Cirque du Freak Cirque du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan Shan, Darren 12-part book series The struggles of a boy who has become involved in the world of vampires
Land Loss Demonata series Shan, Darren There are 10 books in the series. Romance free!
With the Old Breed: At Peleliue and Okinawa Sledge, Eugene
The Mysterious Benedict Society The Mysterious Benedict Society Stewart, Trenton Lee The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey; The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma; The Extraodinary Education of Nicholas Benedict Romance free! Four gifted children. Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire, are formed into the “Mysterious Benedict Society” and are sent to investigate a facility called L.I.V.E. (the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened), run by the brilliant but evil Ledroptha Curtain.
TenNepal, Doug anything by this author Graphic novels
Middleworld The Jaguar Stones series Voelkel, J&P End of the World Club; The River of No Return; The Lost City; 14-year-old Max must rescue his parents from Mayan underworld.
The 5th Wave The 5th Wave Series Yancy, Rick The Infinite Sea; The Last Star (to be published May 2016) Cassie finds herself in a world devastated by alien attack, desperate to save herself and find her lost brother. Cassie’s mission is to stay alone and stay alive. But then she meets Evan Walker, who may be Cassie’s only hope for rescuing her brother–or even saving herself. Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death.

So which book did the boys and up selecting?

They chose the book Storm Front from the Dresden Files series written by author Jim Butcher. It was recommended by one of my former students, a man who is very much into the world of Dungeons and Dragons, weapons, good books, and living life with gusto.

From start to finish: the entire process of finding a book that would satisfy Paco and his friends was fun, energetic, and a great example of a flash community popping up around a common interest. It made me happy.

You know what else made me happy? When I told Paco I needed a feature image for this blog post — something related to books and reading — and he offered to create it. It’s a damn piece of sunshine, that picture. He may be reading adult books these days, but his picture reminded me he’s still a kid inside.

So, in closing, I’d just like to shout: READING RULES!

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